On a recent visit to Brompton Cemetery to research animals on memorials my companion and I decided to explore a side path to find examples. On a corner where it met another side path we suddenly saw a very large gathering of crows perched on various tombstones, graves and memorials. There were so many that passers-by were stopping to look and take photos. My photo doesn’t do the scene justice as I couldn’t fit all the crows that were actually there in the picture.
Brompton’s crows have always been known for their photogenic and obliging qualities by posing on a nearby tombstone in suitably Gothic fashion but I’ve never seen that many gathered together in one place.
A group of crows is known as ‘a murder of crows’ and it only takes 2 crows to make one of these.
The phrase however, appears to date from the late Middle Ages and comes from the Book of Saint Albans or The Book of Hawking, Hunting and Blasing of Arms, which was published in 1486. This is a compendium of items for gentlemen of the time and had an appendix which consisted of a large list of collective nouns for animals. These were known as ‘company terms’ or the’ terms of hunting’. These include familiar ones such as ‘a gaggle of geese’ amongst other colourful and poetic names such as ‘a skulk of foxes’ or ‘an ostentation of peacocks’. There were also collective nouns for various professions such as ‘a melody of harpers’ etc. The ones that have survived to this day derive from this book include ‘a subtlety of sergeants’ and also ‘a murder of crows’. A crow gathering has often been the subject of folk tales and superstition and amongst these is the claim that crows will gather and decide the fate of another crow.
There are also other traditions, which considering that this was happening within a large London cemetery, are worth quoting ,
‘Many view the appearance of crows as an omen of death because ravens and crows are scavengers and are generally associated with dead bodies, battlefields, and cemeteries, and they’re thought to circle in large numbers above sites where animals or people are expected to soon die.’
Romain Bouchard, Etymology nerd
However, there are birdwatchers who insist that a group of crows should be known as a flock of crows and not a ‘murder’ so the jury’s out on that term.
A Facebook friend identified some of the crows as juveniles by the white patches on their breasts who may have just left the nest and are with their parents. The adults will defend their youngsters very aggressively. Crows are very social, live in tight knit families and they mate for life. They can roost in huge numbers of up to 1000+ as protection from other predators. Crows are also highly intelligent and have a repertoire of at least 250 different calls. A distress call will bring other crows to their aid as crows will defend other unrelated crows. A crow’s black plumage have led to them being associated with death and they are members of the Corvidae family which includes magpies and ravens. They are predators and scavengers and will eat virtually anything including roadkill, snakes, mice, eggs and nestlings of other birds amongst other delicacies. I often see crows inspecting the contents of large waste bins at supermarkets or communal litter bins and have seen them take young ducklings in a flash.
A couple of minutes after I took this photo the entire gathering took flight and scattered and I felt very privileged to have seen it at all.
©Text and photo Carole Tyrrell