Crowborough was the village near the country home where Arthur Conan Doyle spent his final years; its name regrettably comes not from crows but from an old English word for yellow. The "Crowborough edition" of ACD's writings, in 24 volumes, was produced at the end of the author's life, in 1930, by Doubleday, who subsequently used some of the typesetting in the Complete SH — including the Crowborough crows.
Perhaps it was the memory of all these theatre-going crows that stimulated Canadian novelist Shane Peacock to make the birds play a significant role in his first "Boy Sherlock Holmes" novel, Eye of the Crow
, which appeared in 2007.
So much for the crows who are birds. For the record, there is also Erasmus Crow, one of the victims in "The Adventure of the Reluctant Corpse" by Matthew J. Elliott, which appears in Volume III of the never-ending MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories
And many of us are acquainted with @221BCrow
, who is an actual person, a writer and enthusiast of Victorian gay history well known in the Sherlockian twittersphere and the Pacific Northwest.
In a different category are the crows who are sounds rather than winged creatures. "Finally," Watson writes, again in The Sign of Four
, "he [Holmes] broke out into a loud crow of delight." That's not the hoarse caw of the crow, but a totally unrelated sound that has been called by the same word at least since the first English translation of the Bible a thousand years ago, which contains the phrase "Se cocc crawe," the cock crew.
It is, in fact, the same noise referred to in "The Norwood Builder" as "Lestrade's little cock-a-doodle of victory". And that's a peculiarly interesting phrase because, if you look up "cock-a-doodle" in the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the quotations documenting the word's use comes from the 1853 novel Peg Woffington by Charles Reade. "It seemed not unlike a small cock-a-doodle-doo of general defiance," Reade wrote, in a book Conan Doyle must certainly have read (he was a great admirer of Reade's later and greater book The Cloister and the Hearth) and, it seems pretty clear, borrowed — and improved — for "The Norwood Builder".
Apart from crows, there are other corvids, notably ravens, which figure in The Hound of the Baskervilles as a pair of them "croaked loudly from a tor." Faced with Selden's body, Holmes observes that "We cannot leave it here to the foxes and the ravens." The Canon also twice refers to "raven" hair; in both instances the black tresses are borne by villains.
As far as I can tell, the tales make no mention of rooks, jackdaws, or magpies, and there is just one jay: Abe Slaney, captured at the end of "The Dancing Men," laments that Holmes tricked him with "a note which made me walk in here, like a jay, and give myself into your hands." I have no idea what that idiom is supposed to mean.
[Editor's note: the author lives not terribly far from the home of the Toronto Blue Jays.]