Monday, August 11, 2008

The carrion crow

click photo to enlarge
"Carein Crowes...neuer medle with any quicke flesh."
The earliest known record of the name Carrion Crow in English, 1528

Standardized names for British Birds appeared much later than is generally realised. Not until A List of British Birds by a Committee of the British Ornithologists' Union in 1883 was a comprehensive list compiled that used only one vernacular name for each species. Yarrell, from 1843 onwards had attempted standardization, but used multiple names for some species. In 1768 Pennant's British Zoology (Birds) had adapted English names to match Linnaeus' scientific classification. In fact, not until the second half of the seventeenth century did bird books appear in English, though authors like Merrett (1667), Charleton (1668) and Ray (1678) translated or used Latin names or borrowings from continental authors.

Of course, the great majority of our bird names are folk names that arose anonymously. They often show regional variation (e.g. Lapwing, Green Plover, Peewit, Tewit), apply to the more common birds, and were sometimes shared between those that we now recognise as separate species (e.g. Marsh Tit, Willow Tit). In the distant past no distinction was made between the Carrion Crow and the Rook: they were both called simply "crows". However, with the rise of the study of natural history observers noted the rook's whitish beak, feathered legs, different call, more gregarious habits and greenish (as opposed to purplish) iridescence. And, later, the similarity of the carrion crow to another crow with patches of grey was realised, as was the interbreeding where their ranges overlapped. Consequently carrion crows became Corvus corone corone, and Royston crows, later called hooded crows, the sub-specific Corvus corone cornix.

However, none of this improved on the bad name that the carrion crow had with country people. Far from being seen as a useful scavenger that cleared the land of dead carcases, its habit of raiding poultry pens, game-bird hatcheries and the nests of songbirds, ensured that its name was as black as its feathers, and it remained the subject of persecution. In literature Shakespeare, Blake, Poe and others used the bird to represent the dead, or as an omen of impending doom. Which is a shame, because carrion crows are attractive birds that can be enjoyed in a wide variety of habitats from mountain-sides to the sea-shore. Today's image was taken on the slopes of the Pennines and shows a bird in a characteristic pose, searching for food from the vantage point of a dead tree. Unfortunately, the way I've taken the shot, in ominous-looking evening light and silhouette, reinforces the stereotype of the species as a lone, malevolent, brooding presence, ever on the look-out for its prey!

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E500
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 150mm (300mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f5.6
Shutter Speed: 1/320
ISO: 200
Exposure Compensation: -0.7 EV
Image Stabilisation: N/A