Crow Facts and Bird Group Names: Background information when reading The Atomic Weight of Love

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The Atomic Weight of Love

by Elizabeth Church

The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth Church
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  • First Published:
    May 2016, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2017, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster

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Beyond the Book:
Crow Facts and Bird Group Names

Print Review

Crows generally mate for life In Elizabeth Church's debut novel, The Atomic Weight of Love, Meridian Wallace studies crow behavior over the course of decades. The Corvid family – which includes crows, rooks, magpies, ravens, and jays – is often considered to have the highest intelligence and most remarkable habits in the bird world. Here are some facts that help explain Meri's fascination:

  • Corvids have a high brain to body ratio, nearly as high as primates and cetaceans (whale, dolphin or porpoise).
  • Corvids can be taught to talk.
  • Crows ranging between 100 and hundreds of thousands roost together for protection, warmth, mate finding, and information sharing. In recent years roosts have started to move into urban areas. The birds return to the same spot every night.
  • Although up of 50% of crows die as fledglings, those that do survive can live for 20 years, or closer to 40 in captivity.
  • Crows generally mate for life. (At least, the females do; males sometimes stray.)
  • As omnivores, crows will eat just about anything, including berries, eggs, small mammals and amphibians, nuts, grain, carrion, and human food.
  • Magpies can recognize themselves in a mirror.
  • Some crows make tools. For example, New Caledonian crows (a subspecies) have been observed making and storing tools (such as hooked sticks) for future use.
  • Like elephants and primates, crows appear to perform funeral rituals for their dead.

Church organizes The Atomic Weight of Love into chapters named after groups of birds, such as "A Parliament of Owls" and "An Unkindness of Ravens." Many of the collective terms for animals and birds come from the Book of Saint Albans of 1486, an early English guide to hunting and falconry. For many species there are several alternative group names. Some are self-explanatory, some relate to the species' behavior, and others are pure whimsy.

Names based on the sounds birds make:

  • a murmuration of starlings
  • a peep of chickens
  • a piteousness of doves
  • a screech of gulls
  • a clattering of jackdaws
  • a prattle of parrots
  • a clamor of rooks

Names based on birds' characteristics or behavior:

  • a scold of jays
  • an exaltation of larks
  • a flamboyance of flamingoes
  • a mischief of magpies
  • a quarrel of sparrows
  • an ostentation of peacocks
  • a whiteness of swans

Some more unusual names:

  • a murder of crows – because they are scavengers and can amass on battlefields and cemeteries, crows have often been considered an omen of death; there are also folktales speaking of crows holding trials to determine the fate of their own members.
  • an unkindness of ravens – this is likely based on a mistaken 19th-century belief that raven parents ejected their young from the nest before they were ready to fly.
  • a parliament of owls – the owl was the totem animal of Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom; although they are generally solitary birds, when they group together they are imagined to have the discernment of a law-making body.

Picture of crows from Depositphotos.com

Article by Rebecca Foster

This article was originally published in May 2016, and has been updated for the March 2017 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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