Crows and ravens get a bad rap. In movies they’re often associated with doom, death and evil. Is it the raucous”caw-caw” that sets people on edge or do we associate their black plumage with darkness and death? I like crows and ravens. They’re clever and intelligent birds. Some use twigs and branches to tease out insects from under tree bark and car traffic to crack open hard-shelled nuts. Remember Uncle Billy’s raven in It’s a Wonderful Life and the crow that landed on the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz? Jimmy the raven played both parts and had hundreds of other roles in Hollywood movies from the 1930s through the 1950s.
While no dog or cat constellation graces the sky our ancestors happily bequeathed us a crow in the form of Corvus. If you’ve never seen Corvus direct your eyes to the southern sky as soon as darkness falls. Corvus isn’t a bright constellation but its compact form makes it easy to find. Four third magnitude stars outline a small trapezoid to the lower right of the bright star Spica around 10-10:30 p.m. at the end evening twilight.
Spica, Virgo’s brightest star, is located about three balled fists above the southern horizon. It’s the only bright star in the lower half of the southern sky. Corvus perches a fist and a half to the lower right of Spica. The crow got its permanent celestial roost when Apollo, the Greek god of the sun, decided one day to offer a sacrifice to his father Zeus. He gave a crow a cup and sent it to fetch water from a spring.
En route, the crow spotted a fig tree with unripe fruit. Instead of proceeding to the task at hand, the bird waited several days for the fruit to ripen into a tasty meal, forcing Apollo to get the water himself. When the crow finally returned he needed an excuse for his tardiness, so he snatched a water-snake from the spring and explained to Apollo that the snake had prevented him from filling the cup. Apollo smelled a lie and condemned the crow to a life of thirst. Further, he placed the snake, cup and bird in the sky as a lesson to all future crows lest they get cocky, too. Huh, maybe that’s how the bad news about crows got started.
Corvus is a small constellation, ranking 70th out of 88 in size. It’s home to the pretty double star Algorab also know as Delta Corvi. Your eyes will see a single star here but a small telescope will reveal that Algorab has a 9th magnitude companion close by to the southwest.
I always associate Corvus with the Southern Cross. That constellation never clears the horizon from my northerly location in Duluth, but if you happen to be in Key West, it stands just above southern horizon at nightfall. To find it, locate Corvus and look a little more than three fists directly beneath.