Corvid intelligence is well-documented. Indeed, as recent studies have shown, crow intelligence is high, rivalling that of primates (Taylor 2014). From scientific journals, to legends, literature and mythology, it is near-impossible to deny that these large, black birds, with their distinctive vocal cries, are anything less than fascinating in their intelligence and folklore.
Crows’ mythological status as messengers of the spirit world, or harbingers of death, lends them an eerie status in connection to the supernatural. Cultural depictions from historical times to today frequently portray crows and ravens in association with witches, spirits, bad luck, evil forces, and the dead. Native American, Norse, and Celtic myths relate stories of the crow as messengers, and as harbingers of death (Sax 2001:74-76).
Yet how do we perceive the crow today? In our increasingly technological world, now shaped by globalization and climate change, what is the role of crow in human society?
Contemporary culture is rife with myths however these are most often appropriated and celebrated in the form of Hollywood movies. The crow makes its appearance in popular culture through cultural commodities, appearing in figures like The Crow, a movie of the same name starring Brandon Lee (1994), who infamously died during filming the movie’s final sequences, or in the names of rock bands like Counting Crows, an American group which takes its name after the old English rhyme.
While to some degree, the perception of crow remains culturally mysterious, the crow also has begun to appear in contemporary cultural artifacts, as an increasing number of YouTube videos demonstrate other, relatively unexpected, qualities: a childlike playfulness compliments their striking intelligence, showing they also possess a capacity for humour. From the much-shared video of a crow “skiing” down a snowy rooftop (Niko Niko 2014), to the crow “playing ball” with a human and a dog (MASSEUR1956 2008), to the “talking” raven named ‘Mischief’, who coyly plays tricks with her handler by providing different vocal responses than requested (Talons and Teeth 2015), the intelligence and personality of crows is more visible than ever.
Whereas previously our legends, folklore, oral stories and visual culture were our only guides to humanity’s interactions with these birds — now found in increasing numbers across the globe — with the extent of visual recorded evidence available today, it is clear that the intelligence of corvids extends as far as, or further than, folkloric traditions may have allowed.