Their slouching posture, their love of carrion, have helped to make crows symbols of death, yet few if any other birds are so lively and playful. They indulge in such apparently useless games as carrying a twig aloft, dropping the toy, then swooping down and catching it. For no apparent reason, they may hang upside down by one foot or execute back flips in flight.
Crows in Alaska reportedly break pieces of congealed snow off sloping rooftops and use these as sleds to slide down.
Lawrence Kilham, who later wrote an important work on the social behaviour of corvids, once took a shot at a raven in Iceland. A single feather dropped to the ground and the raven flew off. As Kilham stopped to reload his gun, the raven returned and flew over his head. The purplish remains of cranberries the raven had been eating fell on his hat, and Kilham concluded that ravens, in addition to being smart, had a sense of humour.
Serves him right.
Crow was a fascinating book that did not so much tell of the natural history or anatomy of crows as of the history of the corvid family in human mythology and culture.
Sax looks at how crows were regarded in different ages and different regions of the world and this makes for light, yet entertaining reading.
For example, I had no idea that the legend of Noah was based on the Babylonian story of Ut-napishtim, who, together with his wife, survived a flood that destroyed the rest of humanity by building a boat. Unlike in the story of Noah, where the raven is depicted as more of a failure in his task, the sign of the raven not coming back meant that the raven had found land and that the water was receding.
My favourite of the legends about corvids was this one about Odin, who had two ravens named "Hugin" ("thought") and "Munin" ("memory"), which perched on his shoulders.
Odin visited Geirrod, king of the Goths, disguised in a blue cloak, to test the monarch's reputation for flouting the laws of hospitality. Geirrod arrested Odin and suspended the god from a tree between two fires. As he was tortured, Odin told of heaven and earth and said:
Hugin and Munin fly every day
Over the wide World;
I fear for Hugin that he will not come back,
Yet I tremble more for Munin.
This was the fear that the world would degenerate into chaos, as reflection and recollection, the gifts of civilisation, are lost.
Thought and memory. I cannot help but agree with the moral of the story - that a world without thought and memory is doomed to regression and chaos.