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Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016 12:20 am

As the crow is bent

Does a name determine one’s destiny?


Some say that names are destiny. Surely jurist Learned Hand was doomed at his christening to take up the law, just as John Wisdom took up philosophy or Brandon Belt picked up a baseball bat. I am indebted to New Scientist magazine for what I know about “nominative determinism,” a spoof discipline that purports to test the notion that people tend to gravitate towards areas of work that fit their name. Evidence includes a book on polar explorations by Daniel Snowman and an article on urology by a researcher named Weedon.

My surname, as most people guess, is German in origin, as were my father’s clan. Most surnames derive from one’s ancestors’ family trade. The old Krohes were farmers and flax weavers, and according to the ancient European way, might well have become known as Bauers or Webers, after their crafts. Alas, my name derives from “Kroh,” which in the Middle High German was a nickname for someone who reminded others of a crow. Perhaps I was doomed to become an opinion monger. My feathers are easily ruffled. My first column was called “As the Crow Flies,” a title I was so taken with that I became a column-writer just so I could use it. I even peck at a computer keyboard.

Of course, some native peoples believed that the crow had the power of speech and was considered to be one of the wisest of birds. (The native people were very wise.) Unfortunately, the crow has other attributes that are not so noble. Yes, they are among the most intelligent birds on the planet. They use tools, and they learn from each other. But they also are capable of bearing a grudge. Many a researcher has recorded how, after they had offended crows by trying to capture them or interfered with their feeding, the birds would remember them and attack them whenever they saw them again, sometimes (as happened once to ornithologist H. David Bohlen in Washington Park) singling them out in a crowd of people. Apparently they teach their young this animus, or rather, the young learn it by watching their elders.

Were they human, they would all be in finance; Bohlen, the Birdman of Sangamon, has seen crows piling corncobs or clods of dirt atop dead birds to hide them and keep others from eating them – what amounts to tax evasion among the corvidae. What the crow can’t kill it will steal. The animal is not known in England (although its close cousins the rook and the raven are) and when English emigrant Eliza Farnham made their acquaintance in Tazewell County in the 1830s she found them “a downright pest to the ripe and ripening crops; assembling in flocks almost like a cloud, they require all the farmer’s vigilance to prevent their flying away with the fruits of his industry.”

Crows will eat anything, dead or alive. The carrion crow fed on the corpses of the battlefield. Crows have been known to attack newborn lambs and calves by pecking out their eyes, blinding and weakening the animals by loss of blood so they can be more easily killed and eaten. Crows will attack eagles and kill hawks; there is very good reason why farmers erect scarecrows and not scarewarblers or scarepigeons to frighten other birds from their fields.

Apparently young crows are moving to our cities for the same reasons human young do – the pickins are easier there. But you wouldn’t want them in your neighborhood. Other birds don’t, anyway. In 2010 I found myself in California. My backyard was a birder’s delight; I sat at my desk and watched titmouse and eastern bluebirds, black phoebes and variegated thrushes, downy woodpeckers, warblers and bushtits and lots more. Then the crows came. Over the next two years the songbirds and others disappeared.

Even when they don’t cause trouble they foretell it. The Roman augur interpreted the will of the gods by studying the flight of birds. Sejanus, prefect of the Praetorian Guard under Tiberius and later consul, was ordered arrested and executed, (probably) for conspiring against Tiberius. Before his fall, it is said, crows had flocked around him and cawed. You can take any significance you will from the fact that in the winter of 2001 the Statehouse grounds were infested not with the usual pigeons or starlings but crows, thousands of which roosted there every day around sunset, like the crows that crowded onto a schoolyard jungle gym in Hitchcock’s The Birds. Associated Press reporter Christopher Wills wrote, “They caw and flap noisily at first but then settle into an eerie silence.” I bet George Ryan could feel an icy wind on his neck, and it wasn’t caused by those flapping wings.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at

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