When I was a little girl, I had an illustrated book of Aesop’s Fables. I especially enjoyed the stories featuring bird characters, including my favorite birds: crows. In fables and folktales, crows are both clever and all-knowing but also prone to self-image issues. Today I’d like to share with you three of my favorite crow tales. I’ve spruced them up a bit for the modern era and given all the characters names, including our titular character, Hoodie Crow, who I based on European hooded crows, and who is never seen without her hoodie. Rachel Nabors
Hoodie Crow was only barely fledged when one day she found herself in possession of a fine chicken nugget dropped by a passing stranger. No sooner had it hit the sidewalk than she’d picked it up with her beak and flown to the nearest tree branch to enjoy her spoils. This feat did not go unnoticed by Tricky Fox, who happened to be sniffing around a trash can nearby.
Before she had the chance to eat her newly won lunch, Tricky Fox came by to investigate. Now, Tricky had been tired and hungry for some time. It had been a dry spring, and there had been few rabbits to catch. He and his family had mostly taken to scavenging, and since the trash had all been picked up the day before, he could find nothing for lunch. He looked up at Hoodie Crow with her nugget held tightly and had an idea.
“Oh, Hoodie!” he cried, “Is that really you? Why, I haven’t seen you since you left your mother’s nest. You look all grown up! Just look at your glossy feathers. They shine purple, green, blue—almost every color of the rainbow! Why, you’re even prettier than the white doves by the church! I bet you sing even better they do, too. Give this poor old fox a song, won’t you? Let me hear how beautifully you sing now!”
If crows could blush, Hoodie’s face would have turned as red as Mr. Fox’s tail! Hoodie opened her beak to sing, but a harsh “CAW” came out instead. The nugget slipped out of her beak and into Tricky Fox’s open mouth.
“I thank you for the meal, Hoodie. And let that be a lesson to you about letting flattery go to your head. A nugget is a small price to pay for some good advice, isn’t it?”
There’s a Bhuddist version where a jackal tries the same on a crow eating apples in a tree. The crow responds with that era’s equivalent of “Game recognizes game!” and shakes down a pile of apples for the two to share. I like that story better, but this is the one I remember from my childhood. Rachel
Hoodie Crow was clever if not wise. As summer wore on and the rain didn’t come, all the animals had trouble finding water to drink. On one particularly hot day, Hoodie discovered a water bottle holding what little rain had fallen earlier in the spring. But it was lodged between two stones, and she could not get it loose to tip out the water, no matter how hard she tugged at it.
She sat down next to the bottle to rest for a moment. While idly poking at some pebbles, an idea came to her. She dropped them, plunk plunk plunk, into the water bottle, each one raising the water level a little higher. It wasn’t long before she had added enough pebbles to reach the water with her bill and drink. Hoodie Crow remembered this trick and the bottle’s location and was never thirsty again.
From that day on, she tried to solve her problems by examining them instead of muscling through them.
This fable, like the first, is thousands of years old. Recently scientists have shown that many corvids can perform the same task without coaching, meaning the tale’s original author probably observed a real crow using this technique. Rachel
When Hoodie Crow was not yet confident like her Mama Crow and still testing her wings, she was very much impressed by Grace Swan. Grace was glamorous and admired by everyone, even if she wasn’t the nicest bird on the water. One day Hoodie heard her giving an interview.
“And how do you keep your feathers so white and pure?”
“I swim and bathe all the time so they don’t get dirty!” Grace replied.
“And how did your neck get so long and beautiful?”
“When I eat, I always reach for the weeds on the bottom of the pond.” Grace dipped her head fetchingly.
Hearing this, Hoodie determined that she could look and be just like Grace Swan by living like a swan. She went to live by the water’s edge and ate only salads made from pondweeds and detritus. She took swimming lessons from the heron, and was convinced when she looked at her wobbling reflection in the water that her neck was growing a little longer, her feathers a little whiter, every day.
One night Mama Owl flew past and noticed Hoodie was up late, splashing around in the shallows, muddy and shivering.
“What on earth are you doing, Hoodie Crow?” Mama Owl called.
“I’m doing what Grace Swan does so that I can be as white and beautiful as she is.”
“You’re not a swan. You’re a crow. And beautiful crows are black, not white. Chunky, not svelte. Coarse, not smooth. Swans may make mud and weeds look glamorous, but the cut of your beak and the swiftness of your mind is what makes you beautiful. Just look at what you’ve done to yourself, Hoodie. You’re a wreck!”
Hoodie looked down at herself in the calm, moonlit waters and saw that she was still black, still stocky, and what’s more, that her feathers were in disarray, covered in mud, and that she was bony and tired. She felt cold and unhappy and felt nothing like herself. She thought about how Mama Owl and Mama Crow always stayed true to themselves and were proud to be who they were. They were not Grace Swan, and they did not need to be. Yet they were loved and respected just as they were.
That night Mama Owl, usually disinclined to spend her precious time with anyone let alone crows, took Hoodie out for a warm dinner and helped her move back into the trees. Never again would Hoodie kill herself trying to be someone she wasn’t.
This tale has the most interpretations of any fable I’ve researched. It has been meant as a lesson that a change of location or habits will not change one’s nature, and it’s been used to press that one shouldn’t “act above one’s station” and should be content with what they have—a justification for all forms of caste systems, slavery, and serfdom if ever I’ve heard one. I prefer my own interpretation, above. Rachel