They're dark. They sound ominous. They'll eat just about anything they can find, including dead bodies on the battlefield or corpses hanging from the gallows. A group of crows is a murder; a group of ravens is an unkindness or conspiracy.
In most of their fictional appearances, crows, rooks, and ravens are scary birds. They are often associated with death, danger and even evil. In Fantasy and Horror works, ravens and crows are often depicted as spies, Familiars and Mooks of the Big Bad or as Feathered Fiends in their own right. The Haunted House or the scary Derelict Graveyard often has crows or ravens hanging about. Some works depict them as being neutral in morality, but still associate them with death, such as having crows or ravens act as servants of a death god.
Even in more realistic works, the presence of ravens and crows can be used to set an ominous mood and to signal death and danger. The presence of a dead body might be indicated by a flock of ravens or crows. A sudden rush of crows might startle a character during a tense moment.
Because they are so visually similar, in many visual media it can be hard to tell whether the bird in question is meant to be a raven or a crow. There usually little if any difference in how they are treated; however, some works might single out only one of these species as being bad. A few works might even show ravens as good (or at least normal) and crows as evil, or vice-versa.
Compare to Circling Vultures and Ominous Owl. Not to be confused with Idiot Crows, where the crows denote stupidity rather than evil.
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Anime and Manga
Uchiha Itachi in Naruto uses crows as part of his genjutsu. He can hide them inside his victim's body to deliver time-delayed brainwashing techniques.
Crows frequently appear when something is about to go bad in Paranoia Agent. Which is all the time.
The 1st Patlabor movie has a memorable scene involving Noah being menaced by a room full of sinister-looking, possibly mind-controlled crows in a Shout-Out to Hitchcock's The Birds.
Birds, especially corvids, also show up in numerous pivotal scenes of the second movie, as well. Director Mamoru Oshii seems to be using them as a visual motif for the schemes of criminal masterminds who try to put themselves above the common people with their manipulative games: E.Hoba in the first movie & Tsuge in the second.
There's a lovely example of this in the first ending for Death Note. Light is standing by water, surrounded by doves — except that his reflection is surrounded by crows instead.
A three-eyed crow demon is one of the first enemies that InuYasha and Kagome encounter and it sort of kicks off the series.
Nii Jienyi of Saiyuki is sometimes associated with carrion crows as well as with rabbits when in his mad scientist guise. When in his guise as Ukoku Sanzo, the crow imagery goes crazy. Ukoku translates literally as "a single crow cried", after what was going on in the background when he killed his master. He wears an unusual dark-colored variation of the standard flowing white sanzo robes, and the sleeves often look like wings when he strikes from above.
In the Mai-HiME anime, Shiho's Child is Yatagarasu, named after the messenger from the gods in Shinto canon. It has one leg instead of three, possibly signifying that "loyalty, truthfulness and devotion" are replaced by the user's Yandere nature.
Child Ballad 26 "The Three Ravens" features three ravens discussing dinner. They mention a dead knight, but his body is being protected by his hawk and his hounds, and his true love comes to bury him and die of grief. It has a much more cynical variant, "The Twa Corbies", where the ravens instead discuss how the dead knight's hawk, hound, and lady have all deserted him, so they can eat his corpse.
Jonathan Crane of the Batman comics, better known as the supervillain Scarecrow, is frequently seen and associated with corvids. In various appearances he has a pet raven named Nightmare or a crow named Craw, and uses a flock of crows to attack Batman in Haunted Knight. On the other hand, in one version of his origin his Freudian Excuse involved his fanatically religious great-grandmother setting trained crows on him as a punishment.
A different villain named the Scarecrow, originally from the Iron Man comics but later used as a Ghost Rider villain, is a contortionist turned Serial Killer who uses trained crows to Zerg Rush his victims. In his first appearance during the Silver Age, the crows were stolen from another performer and used to aid in robberies.
One Far Side panel featured the caption "Tools of the common crow" and depicted a crow standing next to some fresh roadkill, holding a spatula in its beak.
Hugin from Death Vigil is by far the most powerful and feared of the Death Knights.
In Corpse Bride, crows appear to be one of the few types of animal who can visit the Land of the Dead while still alive. Both times Victor is pulled down to the Land of the Dead by Emily, they're surrounded by a flock of them. Crows also live in Elder Gutknecht's tower — he uses their feathers and eggs for magical purposes.
Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty has a pet raven named Diablo that appears to be the only thing she trusts or cares about. It's also her only competent henchman, apparently.
In The Lorax adaptation, the old crows perched on the sign outside the Once-ler's house are harmless, but add to the dark, dreary atmosphere of the place.
Films — Live-Action
In The Virgin Spring, as Ingeri and Karin enter the woods and approach the scary, ominous cabin of a creepy hermit, a raven appears and squawks. The creepy hermit is strongly implied to be the god Odin, granting Ingeri's wish for a curse on Karin, who is promptly raped and murdered.
James O'Barr's The Crow, both the film and the graphic novel version, has the bird as a kind of guide and familiar to the undead avenger protagonist. In the film version, if the crow dies the avenger becomes mortal again, but doesn't lose his other powers.
However, a less malevolent raven appears with a student at the end of the last film, suggesting that wizards keep them as pets.
In the new Sherlock Holmes, Lord Blackwood, whose father notes at one point has been followed by death his entire life, is also followed by a rather sinister black bird.
In The Matrix Reloaded, Agent Smith's arrival is heralded by a flock of crows. This is done because in older, superstitious cultures, crows showing up was considered to be a sign that something bad was on the way.
In The Bird War, the villain is a Feathered Fiend named Fagin, but it is never specified if he is a crow or a raven.
Like in the book, ravens and crows are generally an ill omen in The Lord of the Rings. The "crebain from Dunland" that Legolas sees near the Misty Mountains are implied to be servants of Saruman.
Gandalf: The Enemy has many spies ... beasts, and birds ...
The evil queen Ravenna in Snow White & the Huntsman uses a corvid motif, and is able to transform into a flock of ravens at will, while her minions change into a murder of crows when killed. However, some magpies serve as Snow White's friends and allies.
A flock of crows are heard at the beginning of the Holocaust drama Conspiracy. Crows commonly symbolize death, so the connection to the planned genocide is quite obvious.
In Lone Wolf, it is mentioned that ravens are considered a bad omen in Sommerlund, and indeed whenever they show up in the books, it is in a quite negative light. The fact that some are used by lieutenants of the Darklords as scouts, as seen in Book 1 with a Vordak, sure doesn't help things. In Book 4, the finding of a murder of crows feasting on corpses reveals the fate of the Redshirt Army preceding Lone Wolf.
In Wildwood by Colin Meloy, Prue's brother is kidnapped by a murder of crows.
In The Lord of the Rings, crebain are crows allied with the forces of Evil, serving as spies for Sauron and Saruman.
According to Unfinished Tales the crebain only served Saruman, and not with malicious intentions. The benign wizard, Radagast the Brown had borrowed them to his service, unaware of his treachery.
The Dark One uses ravens as spies, and at one point early in the series a huge flock of them is shown patrolling a forest, swarming and completely stripping the flesh from anything that breaks from the cover of the trees.
Ravens are a symbol of the imperial family of the Seanchan, who are a particularly ruthless society of slave holders that serve as one of the principle antagonists of the series. The imperial family is ruthless not only to slaves but with each other, as they are constantly conspiring against each other and assassinating each other.
The association of ravens with evil is subverted with Mat Cauthon, a hero that is loosely based on Odin and acquires a ring with ravens on it late in the series. He also has a Blade on a Stick with an inscription referencing "Thought" and "Memory", the names of Odin's two ravens. In the 11th book he even becomes the Seanchan Prince of Ravens through marriage to the Seanchan Empress.
Jim Butcher's Codex Alera series uses crows as a symbol of death and battle constantly. "Crows" is also commonly used as a swear word, likely for the same reason. People are quite accustomed to them appearing on a battlefield to feast on the dead. A bit too accustomed, when the Vord hide their Marionette Masters in a murder of crows.
Dan Abnett's Ravenor and Ravenor Returned have the sheen birds, mechanical birds that were created to live in a city where the pollution would kill most unprotected wildlife. They work for the Unkindness, controlled by heretics to perform assassinations almost like a force of nature, using their collective sharp-edged wings to strip victims down to their bloody bones.
In The Dark Is Rising, rooks (a corvid relative) are the agents of the Dark and appear at various points either as spies, harbingers of doom, actual receptacles of evil (the attack on the church on Christmas comes to mind), or simply to look ominous. There is some confusion as to whether they are genuinely wicked or merely misled and controlled by the villains; most of the time they seem rather mindless, and never do they cause any outright harm, but Merriman later says that they "chose to aid the Dark" or words to that effect, a choice they regretted when the Wild Hunt harried them to the ends of the earth. In any event, after book two the rooks are never shown to cause any problems again, whether they were freed from Mind Control or simply learned their lessons and decided to stay neutral from then on.
Corvids in general, especially magpies and crows, are the resident Always Chaotic Evil species in the fantasy novel One For Sorrow, Two For Joy, in which they are mostly portrayed as either stupid, sadistic, or Ax-Crazy and kill smaller birds for fun.
In Stuck at the Wheel, the gang led by The Shadow is named the Crows and their calling card is a black crow feather.
In Krabat, the boys are turned into ravens when they get lessons in (dark) magic.
Crows are among the minions of the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and they also figure heavily in the Scarecrow's backstory - when he was unable to scare them, an old crow taught him about how important brains were.
Divergent: As Tris goes into a simulation designed to emulate her fears she is attacked by a large number of crows. These turn out to be representative of something else as Four points out that she isn't really afraid of crows.
Edgar Allen Poe's poem "The Raven" is an unsettling piece which has a conversation between the narrator and the titular raven, a grim, ominous bird that enters his house on a dark and frightening night, when he's already in a dark mood.
The Reynard Cycle: Tiecelin has a pet raven, Prophet, who can talk, but only knows one word: "Doom!"
Crows are associated with Randall Flagg in The Stand. Often, particularly in the film, but sometimes in the novel as well, a large, black bird is spotted hanging around during a dark time in the plot. The film even has him shifting into crow form in the end.
The vampire Alexandre Russeau brings a flock of carrion crows with him when he moves into Salvation in Sheeps Clothing. They serve as his eyes and ears—and a handy way to get around people scattering seeds outside their doors and windows to invoke his vampiric Super OCD.
Averted in Catherynne M. Valente's The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, in which the two crows, Wit and Study, are actually quite helpful to the heroine.
Live Action TV
In Justified's fifth season, crows are symbolically linked to the murderous Crowe family, flocking about the body of their first victim, Wade Messer.
In Game of Thrones, crows herald the coming of evil supernatural creatures called the White Walkers, who turn the dead into "wights" to add to their army. Ravens, on the other hand, are normal domesticated messenger birds, but they have a bad rep because bad news arrive via them, hence the proverb: "Dark wings, dark words".
Star Trek: Voyager: In one episode, Seven of Nine begins seeing a large black bird in her dreams, which causes her an unusual amount of fear. Janeway reads her description of her dream and realizes it's a raven, as in the Raven, the ship that she and her parents were assimilated on.
Tom Waits: "Flash Pan Hunter/Intro", from The Black Rider, is a minute of a gloomy tune playing while crows caw.
In 1st and 2nd Edition giant ravens were Neutral Evil alignment. In module T1-4 The Temple of Elemental Evil groups of giant ravens guarded the outside of the Temple.
In Forgotten Realms Raven's Bluff is named after unusual local birds (big ravens that leave a curse if killed).
In Points Of Light, the default setting of the 4th edition, has The Raven Queen as the goddess of death, who is, as her name implies, heavily associated with various corvids. Interestingly, she is not evil, but True Neutral. Death comes equally to everyone, after all.
There's a spell called "Blood Crow Strike," which creates energy blasts in the shape of fiery crows. Perhaps predictably, it has the evil descriptor.
There are at least two sorts of psychopomp (the servants of Pharasma, anotherTrue Neutraldeath goddess) that look, or can look, corvid: The huge, powerful yamarajes appear part raven and part dragon, and the tiny nosoi often resemble crows.
A raven is the symbol of Morr, the god of death and dreams in Warhammer.
There are several creepy ravens throughout Disneyland's Haunted Mansion ride. At one point, when your "Doom Buggy" (the car you ride in) descends into the graveyard scene, it rotates around and you are looking up at a raven with glowing red eyes, cawing menacingly down at you.
In BioShock Infinite, the villainous Zealots of the Lady are Elite Mooks who attack by sending swarms of crows at you. They also sport Ku Klux Klan-like clothes, wear coffins on their backs, and are generally associated with decay. After you defeat your first such Zealot, you gain the same ability yourself, as Infinite's version of the original games' Bee Bee Gun Insect Swarm.
In the Castlevania franchise, these are recurring Airborne Mooks as part of the Gothic Horror atmosphere of the game. The games also have a recurring boss named Malphas/Karasuman, a black, winged demon accompanied by a murder of ravens/crows.
Diablo III has crows that fly off when the player approaches, letting out loud caws as they do. They are found in Act I and Act V, which are the areas most reminiscent of classic Horror.
In the short story "Theatre Macabre: The Dark Exile" a playright, who has unwittingly written a play about the exile of the three Prime Evils, reports how several actors who had auditioned for the role of Diablo himself met untimely and grisly ends, one of them being set upon by a murder of crows before his body had even grown cold, which was noted as being abnormal behavior for them.
Scary Scarecrow Fiddlesticks's ultimate ability is Crowstorm in which a whirlwind of deadly crows circle around him dealing massive damage. He also tosses a crow as another ability.
Swain has a demonic raven on his shoulder at all times. No one's really sure why it's there. One of Swain's abilities has it fire an Agony Beam, while his ultimate transforms Swain into a giant demonic man-raven.
Ominous crows hang around Northfield Cemetery in The Lost Crown, and crow motifs appear throughout the game.
In Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Mastema's design has huge black wings and dark skin in contrast to other, shinier Heralds, and is a very shady and amoral character (being the Angel of Hostility, bringer of the Ten Plagues and addressed in his Compendium info as the father of all evil really doesn't help his rep). In Shin Megami Tensei IV, he is often referred to as the Raven by the Archangels, and the quest issued to vanquish him is Great Raven of the Underground.
Dark Souls: Crows and Ravens are the symbol of the Goddess of Sin, Velka, whose influence on the actual game is mostly theoretical, but is probably just as tied to the raven that takes you to Lordran in the first place as she is to the Half-Human Hybrid monsters in the Painted World of Ariamis.
In Mystery Case Files, Ravens are the mascot of the Dalimar family, particularly Alister, the patriarch. He has a loyal raven servant named Tanatos who does his bidding and flocks of the birds surround the Dalimar's derelict Ravenhearst estate. Basically, if the birds ever pop up in the games, then the Dalimars are somehow connected to the story.
Rw By: The Nevermore, a variant of Grimm in the shape of a raven with additional fingers on its wingtips (akin to bats). The gigantic version of it fights the titular team.
Memoria: Lampshaded and then played straight in this comic. A raven is seen in the park, adding to the creepy atmosphere. The main characters comment on its being there, and aren't especially frightened by it at first. Then, of course, things get worse, and they are attacked by an entire flock of ravens.
The plot of one episode has Homer destroy a scarecrow, gaining the loyalty of the crows it was meant to get rid of. They proceed to serve him loyally, and possibly killed a few people, until they nearly kill Maggie by accident. After that Homer tries to get rid of them, but they turn on him and hurt his eyes.
Marge Simpson: I don't want a flock of crows in our bedroom! Homer Simpson: It's a murder, honey. A group of crows is called a murder.
A crow call is often heard in establishing shots of the Springfield nuclear plant, perhaps as a sign of the ominous doings that often occur therein.
The first Treehouse of Horror did a version of Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven with the raven looking like Bart.