Ian Boyden > Essays > Crows and Calligraphy

Crows and Calligraphy: Reflections on Bird Spirits



How can we escape the belief that the bird takes a delight, not only in the exercise of his vocal organs but also in the rhythm and the variety of his utterances? Is he not, in a limited way, a true artist, a composer as well as a performer? I ask it in all seriousness.

          —Francis H. Allen, “The Aesthetic Sense in Birds as Illustrated by the Crow,” in Auk, 1919

And is the crow not the calligrapher of birds? Several years ago I watched a solitary crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) cartwheel through a clear sky to land at the edge of a charred field turned white by a light snowfall. There it hopped and shuffled, at times dragging its central front toe through the snow. After each movement it cocked its head and examined its own tracks. Surely, this crow was repeating the same observations made four thousand years before by Royal Minister Cang Jie, the inventor of written Chinese.

Upon examining bird tracks, Cang Jie realized that structurally different marks, as with different sounds, could represent different ideas. Of course, it is natural he would see this where others had not, as Cang Jie had been gifted with two pairs of eyes. Using the tracks of birds as models, it is said that Cang Jie then wrote the first Chinese characters causing both ghosts and rabbits to wail throughout the night.

Birds and the art of calligraphy have been inseparable ever since. In China, bird characters are found inscribed on Shang and Zhou bronzes; the “Bird and Invertebrate Script” adorned seals and weapons of the Han dynasty; and masters of classical Chinese calligraphy scavenged the necks of geese, the dancing of cranes, the flight of swallows, and the tail feathers of pheasants, using it all to develop their own calligraphic styles. Greek, Roman, and Islamic letters also abound with birds: not only were quills and talons used as nibs for writing, but images of birds also appear in early Minoan scripts, Qur'anic bismillas, and the initial capitals of medieval manuscripts. In addition the Islamic Taüs script is composed entirely of peacocks.

Yet despite ink-black plumage and scutellated tarsi, which resemble segments of a bamboo brush, the crow and other corvids have never been a source of calligraphic creation. As no calligraphic tradition has stepped in to do this honor, it is a delight to create a book that does it with such murderous love.

William Bolcom's original hand-written scores leap and scratch in crow-like fashion across the page. One can see and hear the drag of the central front toe in the ties and slurs; the twitch of the hallux in the appoggiaturas; and the honing of the beak in the staccato marks. It takes little to imagine the pianist's fingers turning into black claws across the ivory keys. Nor is the casual viewer safe. Frank Boyden's drawings translate crows at their most calligraphic and cunning states. One can see intelligence gleam in their eyes, mischievousness reaching from their wings, and ruthless pursuit of abstract beauty in their every posture.

Ornithologists credit the crow with the ability to use tools and imitate the voices of other animals, as well as the aptitude for abstract thought. It is now time to credit the crow as the calligrapher of birds. Francis H. Allen was surely correct when he posited that the crow was a true artist and composer. So here it is that the crow—largest of the songbirds—is finally celebrated.


Ian Boyden

Walla Walla, Washington

June 2000