Some ways of counting crows

Dale
Dale Jarvis
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In many communities in Newfoundland, people have a tradition when they see a single crow - the tradition of “crossing out” the bird, that is, making the sign of a cross in the air when one is seen. A while back, Mike Flynn of Bay Roberts told me a bit of local folklore that claimed every crow is born with a drop of the Devil’s blood, hence the need to make the sign of the cross.

This tradition seems to have English origins with beliefs about magpies. According to a BBC website, “...one magpie on its own is a sign of bad luck. There is no known reason for this superstition, but it is very common. There are various things you can do if you meet a single magpie in order to ward off the bad luck. These include taking your hat off and making the sign of the cross, spitting three times over your shoulder, and saluting the magpie with ‘Hello Mr Magpie, How’s your lady wife today?’”

When settlers came to Newfoundland, there were no magpies, but there were plenty of crows, so the folklore shifted from magpies to the local bird.

This adaptation can be seen in another bit of traditional lore, namely crow-counting rhymes. Rhymes for counting crows can be found in written form all the way back to the 1600s, and were often told about magpies, rather than crows.

Once the rhyme crossed the Atlantic, crows were substituted.

The late Mr. Wesley Gosse, who was born in 1935 at Spaniard’s Bay, was a great source for old place names, rhymes and folklore of the Spaniard’s Bay area. One of the rhymes he had collected caught my interest in particular. It was about counting crows as a means of foretelling the future, and as I remember his words, it went like this:

One for fair,

Two for wet.

Three for sickness,

Four for death.

Five for a funeral.

I had heard other versions of the counting-out rhyme, but I had never heard this particular version from Spaniard’s Bay. When I asked around, other people had heard many other versions, the most popular being:

One for sorrow,

Two for joy,

Three for a girl,

Four for a boy,

Five for silver,

Six for gold,

Seven for a secret (or story) never to be told.

One contact from Bay Roberts wrote me to say that “everyone in Newfoundland knows” that one crow equals sorrow; two crows, joy; and that three foretell a wedding. “Everyone” is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, and what seems more accurate is that the rhyme is found in various (and sometimes wildly different) versions in different communities and different areas. One woman, Paula Roberts of Clarenville, learned a version from a cousin in South River as a child. Her rhyme started:

One for sorrow,

Two for joy,

Three for a kiss,

Four for a boy.

In their book “The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren” Iona and Peter Opie include the English counting rhyme, “one crow for sorrow, two for joy, three for a letter, four for a boy” and note that in Wales, two black crows equal good luck.

Organizations: BBC

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Atlantic, Bay Roberts Clarenville South River Wales

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  • Ken O'Brien
    April 21, 2014 - 12:18

    My wife crosses out single crows (mentally). And there are crow paintings to illustrate the old rhyme on the retaining wall in front of City Terrace, houses above Duckworth Street in St. John's (not far from the old CBC Radio building).