The English language has developed a number of surprising words to identify animal groupings. A few examples for bird groups: a “raft” of auks; a “wreck" of sea birds, a "peep" of chickens, and a “siege" of cranes. Many other creatures are also well named: a “bask” of crocodiles, a “skulk” of foxes, and a “zeal" of zebras. As observers of crows we often find them in groups of three, darkly named a “murder of crows.” Druid legend describes them so. The same is true of their cousins, the three ravens, who famously plot to devour the corpse of a knight slain in battle and protected by his hawk, his hound, and his lady. Shakespeare’s three witches also come to mind.
Three is a strange number for a group of animals. Cardinals hang out as a couple; turkeys, deer and elephants, in groups of a dozen or so family members; wildebeest, buffalo and mackerel among herds and schools with thousands of their species; and humans, with a flexibility peculiar to their kind, alone; or in twos; or with family members numbering a dozen plus; or in sports, lectures, town meetings, churches, in scores; in hundreds of thousands as observers of sporting events or participants in wars; and in cities with, lately, as many as thirty million of their species, but rarely three — Three Stooges, Three Musketeers, Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
Large numbers of a species collect together for excellent reasons: to frustrate predators by confusing them; to have many eyes to spot danger; to become inconspicuous in middle of a large group — sacrificing a few colleagues to protect oneself; to build defensive systems (e.g. woodchucks, mentioned last week); and to create efficient travel systems, such as V-shaped formations, reducing drag by flying in the wing-tip vortex of another bird.
But why three crows? Three is an unstable number, suggesting rivals, jealousies, even murder. I haven’t a clue, and neither does the internet. If you have any suggestions or insights into this question, please let me know.
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