I recently joked to my husband that I have so little knowledge about birds that I can barely tell the difference between a pigeon and a penguin. My interest in the animal kingdom lies chiefly with mammals. To me, birds have always been nice-looking and -sounding, but largely decorative and not terribly interesting.
Except for corvids.* Even I know that corvids–especially ravens, crows, and rooks–are freaking sweet. Not only have they symbolized mischief, misfortune, and death for hundreds of years, but also have proven in recent studies to be scientifically, frighteningly smart.
Did you know that carrion crows can differentiate distinct numerical quantities up to 30? That they can take advantage of traffic lights to get cars to crack walnuts? That they can recognize crow and human faces? Corvids generally have been proven to be able to make and use tools, take the presence of other corvids into account, work with episodic-like memory, plan for the future, understand complex object permanence, learn from vocal cues, and flexibly follow abstract rules. It’s incredible. Rook intelligence rivals that of some primates–in some tests, they actually performed better than a chimpanzee.
Combine corvid intelligence with jet-black feathers, massive beaks, and a penchant for dead flesh, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for creepy. Solitary rooks will occasionally sing to themselves, producing strange clicks, wheezes, and human-like notes. At dusk, they gather in massive flocks that can blot out the sky, The Birds style. Ravens have so few predators that they play catch-me-if-you-can with wolves, and can mimic full sentences and different human voices.
It’s no wonder birds like these inspired Poe, Hitchcock, George R.R. Martin, and others. And it’s no wonder that they morphed into an ur-bogeyman: the Nachtkrapp.
Raise you up on raven wings
Nachtkrapp translates to “Night Raven” (not, sadly, the almost-as-feared “Night Crap”). He is a giant corvid with pits for eyes and holes peppered through his wings–a carcass-like terror that brings disease and death to anyone who so much as looks at him. That’s bad enough, but I’d take that fate over the one in store for children who refuse to go to bed. Emerging from his secret hiding place in the dead of night, Nachtrapp rips those naughty children from their sheets to carry them to his nest. There, he uses his giant beak to messily eat them alive, ripping off their arms and legs before finally picking out their heart.
Though the Nachtrapp name is specific to South German and Austrian mythology, similar legends can be found in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Russia. Some versions go that the raven takes children away in a bag, others that he will come in and crow so loudly that it will frighten them into silence. If kids are lucky, they’ll come across the Guter Nachtkrapp rather than the straight-up Nachtkrapp–the worst ole Guter will do is sing the child sweetly to sleep.
Proceed with caw-tion
It’s not hard to imagine where the legend of the Nachtrapp came from. Wikipedia posits that it kicked off during one of the rook infestations of the Middle Ages. Seeking wildly to get their children to go the heck to bed, mothers took a look at the flesh-tearing, baby-sheep-stealing, aggressive corvids in the crops and got inspired.
And why not? After all, we’re still battling black birds today–both in our nightmares, and on our morning jog. A single crow in Vancouver made mailmen’s lives such hell that they refused to deliver to his territory for over two months. That same crow–named Canuck by human admirers–is known to draw blood, and nicked a knife from a crime scene. He and his buddies forced Vancouverites to invent CrowTrax, an online tracker of violent crow attacks. From founder Jim O’Leary: “It was just a war zone. Just about every day someone would say, ‘I got smacked by a crow.’”
The only remedy against bird attacks seems to be to wear elaborate hats.** To defend against red-winged blackbirds (note: not a corvid), one Massachusetts woman wears one with large plastic flowers. Against magpies, Aussies wear empty tubs of ice cream on their heads. But against crows and ravens? I don’t know. With their skill at facial recognition, that Rocky Road with googly eyes might only make them laugh.
As for protection against Nachtrapp? Well. You should just stop thinking about having your intestines picked out (warning: graphic), and go the caw to sleep.
Which would you rather face: COVID or corvid? Pick your poison in the comments below.
**Or avoid their territory completely. But that can be difficult when you’re competing with them for french fries.