“…few men…would be clever enough to be crows.”

I recently caught up with this Nicola Clayton lecture on corvid intelligence. Well worth a watch, it ends with a very apt quote;

“If men had wings and bore black feathers, Few of them would be clever enough to be crows.”

-Henry Ward Beecher

Unfortunately, as quotes in Powerpoint presentations often are, this is incorrect.

The actual quote is;

“Take off the wings, and put him in breeches, and crows make fair average men. Give men wings, and reduce their smartness a little, and many of them would be almost good enough to be crows.”

Some time into researching the origins of this, I came across this blog post, which correctly identifies that the above is the original wording and that Beecher was indeed its originator. However, taking things a little further, I can confirm that the first appearance of this was NOT ‘Our Dumb Animals’ but rather The New York Ledger. Beecher’s regular (weekly) column in the Ledger was renowned at the time. Unfortunately, I can’t find any 1869 issues of the Ledger online, so I can’t fully pin this one down. Based upon its appearance in the former publication in May of 1870, and various other references from publications that summer (e.g. this one) to “a recent issue of the Ledger”, it appeared in early 1870. From there it was reprinted in various other periodicals and newspapers including ‘Our Dumb Animals’ (even if the latter doesn’t credit the Ledger as other reprints did). 

So how did the incorrect version come about? It was very likely just a misquote or rather, a series of misquotes and paraphrasings. Even some of the early direct quotes got it wrong. One 1873 reprint drops the word ‘almost’, blunting Beecher’s acerbic wit slightly. Saying that many men would be good enough to be crows is kinder than saying that many would be almost good enough. Fairly early on, authors moved to paraphrasing, for example in 1891’s ‘Collected Reports Relating to Agriculture’ we find:

“…Henry Ward Beecher long ago remarked that if men were feathered out and given a pair of wings, a very few of them would be clever enough to be crows.” 

This appeared almost verbatim twenty years later in Coburn’s ‘The Behavior of the Crow’ (1923). Two years later, Glover Morrill Allen’s ‘Birds and Their Attributes’ (1925, p.222) gave us a new version:

“…Henry Ward Beecher was correct when he said that if men could be feathered and provided with wings, very few would be clever enough to be Crows!”

It was this form that was repeated from then on, crucially in some cases (such as Bent’s 1946 ‘Life Histories of North American Birds’) with added quotation marks, making it appear to later readers that these were Beecher’s actual words. Interestingly, the earliest occurrence of the wording ‘very few would prove clever enough’ (my emphasis) seems to emerge later, and is credited to naturalist Henry David Thoreau:

“… once said that if men could be turned into birds, each in accordance with his individual capacity, very few would prove clever enough to be Crows.”

-Bulletin of the Massachusetts Audubon Society in 1942 (p.11).

I can find no evidence that Thoreau ever said anything like this, and of course it’s also suspiciously similar to the Beecher versions floating about at the same time (here’s another from a 1943 issue of ‘Nature Magazine’, p. 401). Thus, I suspect, the Thoreau attribution is a red herring, probably a straight-up mistake by a lone author. In any case, relatively few (only eight that I could detect via Google Books) have run with that attribution since, and these can likely be traced back to the MA Audubon Society error.

So, we are seeing here a game of literary ‘telephone’ from the original Beecher tract in 1870 via various misquotes in the 1920s – 1950s that solidified the version that’s still floating around today. Pleasingly, although his wording has been thoroughly mangled, the meaning remains intact. The key difference is that Beecher was using the attributes of the crow to disparage human beings based upon the low opinion that his fellow man then held of corvids. Despite this, Beecher very clearly did respect the intelligence of the bird as much as the 20th century birders who referenced him, and those of us today who also love the corvids. I think it’s important to be reminded that, as his version shows, widespread affection for corvids is a very recent thing. We should never forget how badly we have mistreated them and, sadly, continue to do so in many places.