So here is where my idea for the title to A WhiskeyJack in a Murder of Crows originated: I personally witnessed one of these. Or part of one, until my dogs saw it too and broke it up. Witnessing it was a very odd thing, and I was very upset my dogs had disturbed it, as it was…surreal.
My attention was brought to it by a silence, oddly enough. I was used to listening to a cacaphony of squawking black birds (I think they were Brewer’s Blackbirds but don’t hold me to that) scavenging in flocks across the vineyards and orchards in Northern California. They made a lot of noise. So when it all stopped, it caught my attention.
Off in the distance, about a hundred yards or so into a walnut orchard, I heard a ruckus start up. Not much of one, but enough to specifically attract my attention. It was a raven. (At least I think it was. I know little about birds, but after looking at what the Raven’s Aviary had to say about Ravens vs. Crows, that is what I decided I had seen.) The raven was mad. You know what I mean. He wasn’t using the serene ‘caw caw caw’ of desolate western movies, he was scolding someone, something, with those caws and squawks.
In A WhiskeyJack in a Murder of Crows, I wrote the scene pretty much as I witnessed it, so I beg forgiveness as I cut and paste to save time and borrow a few lines from that book. If you ignore Archer and Jack and imagine it was just me and my two dogs out there, this is what happened:Archer began to ask a question, but was interrupted by a loud hoarse croaking from the top of one of the walnut trees. KAW! KAW! KAW! She glanced over at the giant raven sitting atop the tree and was startled when the other ravens seemed to answer in chorus. Her question for Jack was forgotten as the big raven called out again with his raspy cry and the other ravens fell silent. A lone raven fluttered down to the ground near the center of the clearing. “Oh my God…” Archer barely breathed. Picking up on her restraint, Jack whispered back as quietly as he could. “What is it? Are you all right?” She barely nodded, never taking her eyes off the raven on the ground. It slowly walked to the center of the clearing, head hung low, like a condemned prisoner. Occasionally one of the ravens in the trees made a small strange crackling sound or ruffled its feathers, but they all intently watched the one on the ground. “What…?” Jack started to whisper again, but Archer placed a silencing hand on his arm. The large raven croaked again, this time with a series of broken caws and muttering squawks. The bird’s voice was parched and gravelly. As it spoke, the bird on the ground cocked its head sideways to look up at it. “It’s like they’re talking!” Jack whispered but Archer’s hand tightened on his arm and he fell silent again. At the top of the tree, the bird spread its long black wings wide for a moment then opened and closed them rapidly before falling still. The motions were imitated by a second bird in an adjacent tree, followed by a third and a fourth. The attention of the raven on the ground quietly shifted to each in turn. As the fourth bird fell still the raven on the ground dipped its head and the cacophony of croaks and caws returned as dozens of ravens began fluttering their wings and hopping around in the trees. One swooped from the trees, coming from behind the bird on the ground and hit it, blindsiding it with a croaking shriek. The bird on the ground tumbled but flapped its wings to right itself just as another blindsided it again. Feathers came loose as a third and a fourth took turns at the grounded raven. Each time the raven fluttered valiantly to right itself, but made no attempt to escape. “They’re killing it!” Jack found himself standing with Archer still gripping his arm. “It’s called a council of crows,” Archer whispered. “I thought it was a myth.” “Looks real enough.” Jack picked up his cane and headed for the raven on the ground as more swooped towards it. “What are you doing?” Archer hissed after him. Jack ignored her and hurried towards the raven on the ground. He quickly made his way with a hopping limp, waiving his cane around at the swooping corvids. As he made it to the beaten bird, the others squawked in confusion and circled briefly before dispersing. In a moment the ravens were all gone from sight with only an occasional distant croak to show they had been there. A strange crackling sound came from above his head and he looked up at the big raven that had led the council. The black beak glinted dully in sunlight as the bird cocked its head and eyed Jack. It clicked its beak together a few times before making the crackling sound again. Jack looked back defiantly, feeling as though he was being judged. The raven broke eye contact, spread its black wings wide, and flew into the sky with a loud cry. KAW! KAW! KAW! Jack watched it for a moment and then it was gone. He looked down at the raven by his feet. It was dazed, still trying to stand. Okay. Re-reading that, I find it does not match my memory in one respect: the birds that flew down out of the trees and attacked did so silently. That was part of what was surreal about the whole thing. After I noticed the ravens imitating the first raven, I had walked closer and was within about thirty yards when my dogs, who normally ignored birds and were intent on lizards and mice, noticed the birds swooping down and, more importantly, the raven on the ground. This is when they took charge and chased off all of the ravens. The raven that had been on the ground flew in the opposite direction of all of the others, which left as a group, but for one. I cannot honestly say I know it was the original ‘leader,’ but I thought it was at the time. It did eyeball me and act as though it disproved of me before flying off. Ok. So that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
‘Animal courts’ have supposedly been observed throughout history. According to the K.I.S.S. Guide to the Unexplained, other animals observed in this behavior include monkeys, turkeys, sparrows, mice, and storks. Unexplained Phenomena A Rough Guide Special lists several accounts from various sources, including some involving ‘passing judgement’ upon a creature of another species, and is a much more thorough source of information.
The Raven’s Aviary is a great place to start leaning more about corvids, and if they interest you, I highly recommend it.