Crow

It does help to be well-connected when one is trying to get one’s writing career off the ground.

Daphne Du Maurier was better connected than the silent majority. She was the granddaughter of the Punch cartoonist who wrote the sinister hypnotist Svengali into that end-of-the-nineteenth-century sensation based in bohemian Paris, Trilby.

When one has invented a word like Svengali, and a Machiavellian character to match, and made him common parlance, there is nothing left but to declare one a national institution: which is what happened to George Du Maurier, aka Grandfather.

Daddy was a fabulous actor-manager, the very first George Darling in JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, Or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. Mummy was a famous actress, Muriel Beaumont, and Daphne’s cousins, the Llewelyn Davies boys, were JM Barrie’s original inspiration for his characters in Peter Pan.

It must have helped, mustn’t it?

And yet when I read her spellbinding stories, with their complex characters and all-encompassing settings, it is plain for all to read: she was a genius in her own right.

My favourite of hers is Rebecca, of course: a thriller about a new wife who must compete with the memory of the old.

It threatens to mess with our mind as well as Rebecca’s. It is cradled in the deeply traditional heart of Cornwall, and yet the interplay of characters, with all their complexity, seems to have a sharper modernist blade. It is stark and verging on the merciless at times.

Sniffy intellectuals have questioned her place in the history of literature: I am bedrock-certain that a storyteller of her calibre must be read and re-read.

Novels are not picture books, yet hers are suffused with luscious, almost louche scenes, dripping with light and the lack of it. Her ability to run a film inside our heads endures.

Perhaps that is why Alfred Hitchcock seized upon her work. It lent itself to the big screen, this bold literature. First he took Jamaica Inn, the bleak story of hard-hearted folk running an inn on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. A more desolate setting you will not find: I used to live nearby and at the wrong time of year it dulls the soul, the rock and wet and cold.

A year later he tackled Rebecca. And more than a decade after that, he turned to a collection of her short stories written in 1952 called The Apple Tree. One of its stories was entitled The Birds.

Told from the viewpoint of a coastal Cornishman, it explores what would happen if our avian sphere dwellers began, inexplicably, to turn on us.

The makers of the film are said to have rounded up and trained hundreds of gulls, ravens and crows for some of the stark attack scenes.

The results were striking because we expect the crow to co-exist. They do that, crows. I have a great affection for the small black figures I see wandering across a field or inspecting something on a road. I always wonder: what can possibly be going through their heads?

More than one might imagine, apparently.

Enter Joshua Klein.

If ever you loved the unexpected: the truly, logically, affably subversive: then this man is the man for you.

Defining him is not simple, because he does not fit into boxes. He says, simply, he is a hacker.

His own definition? “He examines systems, he takes them apart, and he puts different pieces together to produce something new and more effective. He hacks. Everything.”

So: Joshua Klein got to watching the crows in his back garden, and arguing their usefulness to society with a neighbour over the fence.

In a short lecture for TED (Technology, Entertainment Design, a non-profit organisation which aims to disseminate ‘ideas worth spreading’) Klein outlines some of the breathtaking problem solving skills of our corvid friends.

Take a look. He showcases film of a crow who is faced with a long jar, which has food at the bottom. The only tool has he has is a long piece of wire. He takes the wire, bends it to form a hook, and hooks the food out.

And that’s just the entree. Are you familiar with the city crows cited by David Attenborough, who drop nuts on the road to get them cracked by traffic, and then wait for the green man so they saunter onto the crossing to retrieve their treasure safely?

Now they whole city neighbourhood is full of clever crows – because they network.

Klein has taken it so much further: he has created a vending machine for crows. He has spent the last ten years training them to pick up a coin and insert it into a machine to attain a reward of peanuts.

His final words in this short piece of film are an oddity: he says, why not train the crows to do something useful, instead of reviling them? They could clear litter, for example: or select electrical components to order.

One strange example might support this: that ofย Moses, an American crow who adopted a stray kitten, fed it and nurtured it to full strength, and made a fast friend for life.

But Klein’s leap brings me straight back to Hitchcock with a bump. All my corvid idealism evaporates in an instant.

Because they are already learning. And they have attitude.

Klein cites the University of Washington, where some students were set to round up a group of crows, weigh them and measure them for a simple set of experiments.

They let them free again: and when they went home the crows set up a racket and made themselves generally objectionable.

The next day, they did the same with these few students. And the next week, and the next year: in fact the students had no peace until they left their studies all together.

Later, returning from the big wide world for some conference or other, the crows still remembered them and made their dislike unsettlingly clear.

A crow never forgets.

And who has not watched crows’ teamwork, mobbing our birds of prey in the sky: one Goliath against so many black-clad Davids it becomes redolent of the Mafia. No Goliath would have a hope.

And so, having come full circle and back to Du Maurier’s vision, we must acknowledge they are clever cohabitants with man, learning, networking problem solvers with a capacity for both peaceful coexistence and aggression.

Sound like anyone you know?

I retain my affection: along with a healthy regard for these creatures which have the same brain to body ratio as a chimpanzee.

I have a feeling it would be in ย our interests to keep on the right side of the corvids.

36 thoughts on “Crow

  1. I remember walking to the bus stop as a child, having to cross an empty field often filled with rising mist and the ominous sound of crows calling to each other. Glad I hadn’t watched The Birds yet!

    1. Have you watched the kitten/crow link, Cindy? Now there’s a personable crow if ever I saw one: Charlie sounds similar ๐Ÿ™‚ And it’s not just magpies that like shiny things, then….

  2. Very interesting post, Kate. Who knew crows weren’t just dark birds? I had no idea what crows were capable of, and they usually just get bad press. Thanks for the new insights.
    Sunshine xx

  3. so we could be crowed by their intelligence.

    They have had an interesting reputation, andthe dark colouring makes them seem important, not like the flashy coloured birds who obviously are just part of the entertainment.

    1. They have a certain presence, don’t they, Sidey? I always imagine them hunched over a cigarette in a 1940’s trenchcoat, plotting away. Not entertaining, but most calculating ๐Ÿ˜€

  4. ‘to run a film inside our heads” Near the end of my high school teaching career(except for the natural whiz kids and college bound) I had to buy into the theory that every teacher is a reading teacher. I understood and accepted this because they were coming into the 11th grade 2-5 years below reading level. “Less is more” was another mantra. So instead of doing a chapter I would focus on 5 select pages and really take the reading apart. Many were not reading but decoding words by syllable and others read but nothing was registering. Others read and just passed over a new vocab word or an unpronounceable one without any question or wonder at all. I tried to teach using your suggestion that if pictures are not forming in your mind’s movie camera as you read, you are not reading. Some looked at me as if I was crazy and some caught on. To “engage” with test was the challenge. Of course the ability to elicit this mind film and set it to constant motion measured whether a writer was good, great, or mediocre.

    1. I must surpress my uncontained joy to find another teacher of like mind, Carl! I have a feeling it would be great fun teaching alongside you.

      Reading is so complex, the shades of meaning so various and sparked by wide reference. Someone who finds the written word only a stop sign would be baffled and unable to start building the film. Reading with kids – short bursts- is such an effective way to make the film vivid. As you say: some engage, some don’t. Some are just not meant to be Tolstoy. But for those who are, I have no doubt your techniques played an important part.

  5. To me, listening to crows is like the bird equivalent of a gregorian chant – something mediaeval (and older) brought to life in our 21st century. I have no idea why I feel that about crows more than I do about blackbirds ๐Ÿ™‚ could be too many 1960s period horror films

    1. I know precisely what you mean. They are a very old symbol: look at Aesop, of the Jackdaw of Reims. A monk’s habit and a crows habit just seem at home together. Maybe it is the stark quality of their calls: they are hoarse. And their stance: it is hunched like a mediaeval beggar. I could carry on maybe-ing for a very long time…

  6. Crows are lovely, much underrated and highly intelligent birds. We have a friendly one we named Old Man Crow. My youngest daughter loves him. My oldest daughter loves Daphne Du Maurier as scours the musty shelves of charity shops for a bargain.
    I know Elijah and St Benedict befriended ravens, but for us lesser mortals crows are good enough.

    1. Mum6kids, I would give a king’s ransom to see Old Man Crow in action, especially after viewing the clips in today’s links: as you say, they are clever and characterful. And Daphne: she’s one of my favourites of all time. Your daughter has impeccable taste ๐Ÿ˜€

  7. IN the trees over the road we have a rookery… jolly nearly crows… in the same family, and I love their raucousness and intelligence. I love the clip your link took me to, Kate. What an enthusiast! Fantastic idea to train them to do things for us.
    I have posted a rook poem in response… (written a while back .)

    On Daphne De Maurier: I have never read Rebecca… shock horror, but I have read her short stories and especially the one that provided the story line to make ‘Don’t Look Now’ – a film which is, I believe, even better than the original story. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don%27t_Look_Now

    1. Rookeries are brilliant to sit and watch aren’t they? I used to have a regular pub where they flew between four clumps of towering conifers, one at each corner of the grounds. You could watch them for hours. And hear them miles away.

      You might like Rebecca. Not your average thriller ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m off to read your rook poem.

  8. I have always been afraid of birds, especially ravens, crows, and parrots. They are much too intelligent, more than they should be I think. Thus they are perfect subjects for thrillers and horror films. There is something in their eyes that tells you to be careful.

  9. Hi Kate. Remember this?

    Three craws sat upon a wall, sat upon a wall, sat upon a wall
    Three craws sat upon a wall on a cauld and frosty morning.

    First craw greetin, for his maw, greetin’ for his maw, greetin’ for his maw
    First craw greetin’ for his maw, on a cauld and frosty morning

    Second craw fell and broke his jaw, fell and broke his jaw, fell and broke his jaw
    Second craw fell and broke his jaw, on a cauld and frosty morning

    Third craw cudna flee at all, cudna flee at all, cudna flee at all
    Third craw cudna flee at all, on a cauld and frosty morning

    Fourth craw was nae there at all, was nae there at all, was nae there at all
    Fourth craw was nae ther at all, on a cauld and frosty morning.

    Crows always fascinate. There are some grisly songs about crows.
    Love Dad

    1. Sometimes, Tammy, it’s enough to know about these authors so one day, when you are on holiday and browsing through a thrift shop, you can pay a few dollars and bag yourself the holiday read of a lifetime ๐Ÿ˜€

  10. Wonderful post, Kate. Loved reading Jamaica Inn as a teen ~ and watching The Birds. Alfred Hitchcock flicks are so compelling.

    Thanks for the links.

    1. Jamaica Inn is still there, and between you and I and the blogosphere it’s still pretty grim, Nancy ๐Ÿ™‚ Last I heard it was still a museum of taxidermy in the poorest of taste.

  11. Frank Capra used the same crow as an “actor” in several of his movies. He is Uncle Billy’s pet in my all-time favorite, It’s a Wonderful Life.

    We are starting to see them again in these parts. The crow, along with bluejays and other birds, were struck by the thousands a few years ago with the West Nile virus. It is good to hear their distinctive caw once again.

    What interesting facts about Daphne Du Maurier. The Birds still sends chills down my spine.

    1. Oh, that is a raft of extra information to add to our Crow Files, Penny, thank you so much! I knew crow populations had suffered but not the reason their numbers dwindled. You must live at Crow Central there on the Cutoff ๐Ÿ˜€

  12. The crows are fascinating. It’s time to revisit the definition of birdbrain.

    I didn’t know about the Du Mauriers-Barrie connection. I read my mother’s copy of My Cousin Rachel before I got my hands on Rebecca. I cannot forgive Hitchcock for changing the circumstances of Rebecca’s death, but fortunately that was remedied in the Jeremy Brett version in the late ’70s. I remember one novel about the children of a self-absorbed pair of actors, but I can’t remember the title. It occurs to me that since I read most of my Du Maurier before I was 15, I ought to read it all again. A pleasing prospect.

    1. Oh, Jeremy Brett! Just watching his consummate Sherlock Holmes! A genius, and I have never seen his Rebecca. I’m off to YouTube: could they possibly have a version archived? I fervently hope so..

      1. I read on a site about Jeremy Brett that his Rebecca is not available. The BBC can’t broadcast or sell it because it doesn’t own the copyright. Home videos are for sale online. (I guess those sellers don’t worry about copyright restrictions.) It’s a great production. Anna Massey plays Mrs. Danvers. Scarier than Judith Anderson.

        Seems to me the BBC might seek to acquire copyright/license to sell the DVD, but mine not to question why.

        One of my former doctors kept a framed picture of JB/Sherlock Holmes in his office. It gave me confidence to know the man had good taste in television.

      2. Must root it out. I am a huge Brett fan: a genius, but with such a sad life. We’ve discovered all the Holmes’s on YouTube now, and are working through the ones we have not tracked down before.

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