Collective nouns are a curious breed – they often carry the prejudices of those who coined them. So for the pretty, colourful birds you have an exaltation of larks, a charm of goldfinches or a murmuration of starlings. But the large, black members of family corvidae have not received such sympathetic treatment.
A murder of crows; an unkindness of ravens. What have these birds done that they deserve such negative associations? For in fact corvids are among the most intelligent of our feathered friends. This intelligence has been reflected throughout history by the roles played by ravens and crows in mythology across various cultures, particularly Native American and Norse. Not merely bystanders in various myths and legends, these birds often play a central part as protagonists and messengers.
Some North American tribes’ shamanistic traditions depict Raven as the creator of the world. The chief god of the Norse peoples, Odin, was so strongly associated with ravens that he was known as the “raven god”; his pair, named Huginn and Muninn, being the god’s eyes and ears in the world of men, Midgard. Crows and magpies too have long been seen as spiritual beings, mediators between the realms of the living and the dead. Also to this day there persists a belief that should the ravens residing at the Tower of London ever leave, the kingdom will fall.
My personal belief is that crows, ravens, rooks and the other members of the corvid family are admirable, highly intelligent birds with an air of mystery and spirituality about them and a charming, insouciant – sometimes cheeky – manner. No wonder they have featured as tricksters so many times in mythology. And I love the black plumage with its subtle glossy iridescence.