We hire a car and drive to Buckenham Heath at dusk to see the country’s largest corvid roost. Tens of thousands congregate in the air, split apart and come together, then suddenly settle on the trees as night falls. Who knows what they’re saying to each other as they fill the sky with their strange raucous calls. Are they gossiping, fighting, finding mates?
Yet they can also talk like us, uncannily mimic our speech. 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.
Early humans, they say, 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.
The physical and symbolic links between people and animals have long since been broken. Animals are now mostly products or sources of entertainment, to be used and segregated – or only let into our world as pets. But the animals themselves are the same: still both like and unlike us. They still gaze at us from far away, from the silence of the day, and we’re more alone before their gaze than ever. We look to them to find the secret of our origin but they don’t answer. Maybe their non-answer is the answer: find it for yourself.