The Unkindness Of Fear

I’m exploring drawing, and fear, and particularly the way drawing something that’s troubling or scary can affect the way I feel about it. This is part 3.

I may be scared of spiders (but less so, having drawn one and seen how lovely it was), but I’m not afraid of crows – though some people are. I wanted to see if drawing one would tell me anything about that fear – and if I could understand it.


This is a rook, not a crow, and I felt nothing but fascination, drawing it.
Rooks and crows are part of the same family and easily mistaken for each other – they’re both big and black; in many cultures they’re associated with death and if you encounter one close up, they can be alarming. Particularly if you’re being mobbed by a group of them. Perhaps this behaviour is why they’re known collectively as a murder of crows. A group of rooks, on the other hand, is called a parliament (because they’re sociable and talkative); but a gathering of ravens is called an unkindness.

I don’t know why this should be, but the word itself, unkindness, strikes me as being a close companion to fear; as related as rooks and ravens are to crows. Fear is unkind.

We humans choose at times not merely to defend ourselves (as crows do when mobbing a threat or a predator) but to deliberately cause fear and to terrorise each other, the most extreme form of unkindness. If you know how it feels to be afraid, then the threat of fear itself can make you very vulnerable. I know what it’s like; I am afraid of fear.

It’s an emotion that’s powerfully easy to transmit. We can pass it on to each other in a heartbeat and spread it like a virus that can quickly take root – and often it can be totally unfounded, or frighteningly misplaced. There are things we should be frightened of – but we really need to make sure we identify those things – or those people – with the greatest care and attention.


Amazingly, it seems that crows can do this really well. They have the ability to recognise individual human faces, at least as accurately as we do and probably better. And they remember which humans have done something to harm or frighten them – and then pass this information on to other crows, who learn precisely which individual humans to be wary of. They don’t change their attitude towards humans in general – just the specific ones they recognise as a problem.

This kind of accuracy requires paying very close attention – the kind of observation that happens when you draw – and it’s something we humans often fail to do. We make generalisations that are not informed enough, and end up frightening ourselves and getting panicky when we don’t need to. The sheer quantity of fear swirling around at the moment is out of all proportion to any terrorism that may be real; when Donald Trump says ban all muslims from entering the US, when asylum seekers homes are attacked or vandalised, when muslim women are verbally abused in public – fear is fueling fear, escalating as it goes and sweeping up everyone it touches.

Drawing makes me notice things – and not just the object that I’m drawing. I realise that the more drawing I do, the more observant I am generally all the time. The more I look the more I understand, and then I’m more likely to recognise what I’m seeing and be able to respond appropriately. So drawing does more than calm our fears and help to dispel them – it helps identify precisely what or who we should be frightened of in the first place.

If I practise enough, maybe I’ll get to be as discerning as a crow.


11 thoughts on “The Unkindness Of Fear

  1. I love this drawing, there is such a freshness to it. I think I’m fascinated with your line quality and the strength that you have portrayed in the Rook. I had no idea they were able to have such a reaction to humans, so interesting. Great post!

    1. Cathe, thank you – I’m glad you liked both the drawing and the post – and it is fascinating, about crows, isn’t it? I had no idea they could do this either, until I researched a few facts on them for this. I love it when starting off by drawing something leads on to learning so much more. Thanks for all the comments you left on several posts this morning – it’s great to have such interesting and thoughtful responses. 🙂

    1. Aw – (or should I say ‘caw’?!) – you’re too kind, Susan! In fact my facial recognition skills are not all they might be and could do with improvement – but I hope that I’m not too bad at discerning. I’ve still got a way to go!

  2. I love this post, a wonderful painting full of character and words filled with insight. I’m quite fascinated by all corvids but especially love Ravens and Crows and all their mythology. I suppose you know of their links with the Norse god Odin? Xx

  3. Fascinating – crows and their ilk are such smart birds. The more I find out about certain birds, the more respect I have for them. Some – such as galahs – have an amazing sense of fun, they all seem to have district characteristics. Its a great drawing, loose and precise at the same time.

    1. Goodness, I had to look that up – yes, parrots of all kinds are extremely clever and how wonderful to be able to see them in the wild! They look amazing and how lovely they’d be to draw. Sadly I’m limited to museum specimens – but at least I can get up close and personal. But there’s nothing like sketching from life!

  4. A fascinating post at lots of levels. I didn’t know that crows were good at human facial recognition and can remember individuals who’ve treated them badly – wow! I’m racking my brains – did I once shoo one away from some newly planted seeds?!

    1. Oh dear! And apparently they remember for years! But I can’t imagine they’d hold that too badly against you. In one of the experiments conducted in tbe US that proved this behaviour the person being the ‘aggressor’ walked about holding a dead crow (just holding it out in both hands as if offering it) and this was what caused the crows such distress. Which is interesting because they were also researching the crows reaction to death – and th is is almost a whole new subject in itself – they DO know what death is, and worry about it. Hence the success of dead crows hung on a fence as a scare-crow. More food for thought!

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