Corvids

The mysterious intelligence of corvids. And their calls – sui generis sounds of nature, eluding description. What else sounds like them? Yet they can mimic human speech with uncanny accuracy. They can recognize our faces, bring us gifts or take revenge on us, even through generations. They’re social, cunning, adaptable – at once like and unlike us.

I see rooks and jackdaws on my way home in the evenings as they congregate in the air to go to their roost. Who knows what they’re saying in their raucous calls? And yet so like us… A juvenile, for instance, having been turfed off a feeding patch by a mature pair, was observed consorting with other youngsters in the roost and returning to the patch with a gang to chase the pair way.

Early humans, it’s said, respected and learned about their surroundings from corvids. Interactions between hunter-gatherers and corvids may even have led to a kind of cultural coevolution: the birds changed their behaviour to lead people to large prey in hope of a meal of leftovers, and people in turn changed their behaviour to understand and follow the birds. Our close association with them (and the need to defend our food from them) may have refined our own cooperation and communication. Later cultures saw them as living symbols of natural and divine forces – sometimes of primal darkness, sometimes of light. Crows and ravens carried messages from the gods or had sacred ties to the sun. They were bearers of meaning in the world. The negative connotations of corvids largely came about with the rise of industrial agriculture and the sight of crows picking at corpses on early modern battlefields. They became seen as threats to profit and birds of ill omen – to us.

These literal and metaphorical links between people and animals have long since broken. To us animals are products, experiments, entertainment. But the animals themselves are the same: both like and unlike us. They still gaze at us from far away, from the silence of the day, but we’re more alone before their gaze than ever. It only reflects our own. We ask them to tell us the secret of our origin but they don’t answer. Perhaps their non-answer is the answer: find it for yourself.

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