The Scavengers: Crows and their symbolism in art

Since I started as a student at Acadia, my relationship with crows has slowly become one of stolen cupcakes, apples, and bagels, and the feeling of unease as I walk around campus. I laugh at myself all the time because although their presence frightens me, what frightens me more is when there isn’t a single crow in sight – where are they? Are they planning their next snack heist? Crows like to keep us on our toes, never knowing what they will do next.

Crows are large, intelligent, all-black birds with hoarse, cawing voices – they are also fearless, and are not afraid to swoop down and attack defenseless students on the Acadia campus, should they notice food in their hands or poking out of a bag. They are highly adaptable to different habitats, and will live in any place that offers trees to perch and nest in and a reliable source for food. They are omnivorous, meaning they eat things from grains and fruits to insects, mice, small aquatic animals. They are highly social birds, and are most often seen in groups and stay together in year-round family groups – a group of crows is called a murder.

In the study of crows, it has been concluded that they are one of the most intelligent animals in the world, capable of remembering faces, understanding simple human words, phrases, and body language, and solve problems; they have also been known to present gifts of trinkets, money, and the hearts of smaller animals to individuals who help or feed them. With this potential to build relationships with humans, crows are often associated and partnered with ravens, who have been the helpful hands and sidekicks in many stories and works of art.

Crows are often treated identically with ravens in the discussion and use of symbolism. It is believed that crows were seen by early civilizations as magical because they survived and prospered by eating dead and decayed things. Three-legged crows appeared in early Japanese hand scrolls and Han Dynasty stone carvings. The bird’s three legs stood for yang (odd numbered) and the three times of day. However, in other sources, it is noted that the Japanese associated crows with winter, bleakness, and misfortune because they were nuisances, quarrelsome, and noisy. In India, there is a fable of a crow and a palm tree that has the metaphor of pure chance: A crow sits in a palm tree at the precise moment when the tree is falling, thus making it appear as though the crow caused the tree to fall – the story of the crow and the palm tree can be understood as an explanation of bad luck. Thus, the crow is the agent of change in the story, which indicates that things are what they are and we will never understand why.

Artist Alex Colville has a very interesting view of  the crow, which he expressed through his art. Born August 24th, 1920 in Toronto, Alex Colville moved to Amherst, Nova Scotia with his family in 1929. In 1942, he graduated from Mount Allison University in New Brunswick with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, and enlisted in the Canadian army shortly after. He served in the army from 1942 – 1946 as a military artist. Colville had a keen eye for painting animals – he viewed animals as essentially innocent, stating “I don’t think there’s such a thing as an evil animal.” He would typically use animals in his paintings to represent potential tragedy, with the animals as powerful warning beacons. Writer Ann-Marie Macdonald discusses Colville’s use of crows, stating that the animals in his paintings usually form the emotional connection with the viewer, as they look directly at them. She sees crows as intelligent witnesses – they are smart and have their own agendas.

Coleville had his first commercial exhibitions at the Hewitt Gallery in New York between 1952 and 1955. In 1973, Colville and his wife Rhonda moved to Wolfville, Nova Scotia where he served as Chancellor of Acadia University from 1981-1991 and lived until his passing on July 16, 2013. The gallery has been collecting the work of Alex Colville since 1981, beginning with the generous donation of several works from alumna Constance Hayward. Since then the collection has grown through purchases and donations.

The following work is by Alex Colville, entitled ” Crow With Silver Spoon”. It is interesting to note that this work and title reflect on the saying ‘born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth’ which is used to describe an individual born into wealth and privilege. This phrase finds its origins in the British aristocracy, as it was a tradition for wealthy godparents to gift silver spoons to their godchildren when christened.


Alex Colville “Crow With Silver Spoon” (Serigraph, artist proof 1972, donation of Constance Hayward). Copyright A.C. Fine Art Inc.

We would like to hear your thoughts and/or stories about crows, and your thoughts on Alex Colville’s work! Join the conversation below.


Alexandra (Collections and Outreach Assistant, Summer 2017) and Dr. Laurie Dalton (Director and Curator, the Acadia University Art Gallery).


Works Cited:

Ball, Katherine M. Animal Motifs in Asian Art: An Illustrated Guide to their Meanings and Aesthetics. Minnesota, New York: Dover Publications, 2004.

Cornell University. “American Crow”. All About Birds. 2015. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

“On Good and Evil: Animal Life Revealed”. Welcome to Colville. N.d. Retrieved on June 2, 2017.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s