It’s not the most common phrase to hear, but “as the crow flies” does crop up and you either know what it means or you just kind of smile and nod as if you do know what it means and hope nobody asks you any questions. But let’s first ask what it means to go as the crow flies. Because we’re totally not the second person who just nods and says “I know what’s up.” Then we’ll tackle what’s up with their flying habits. Do we actually go as the crow flies? Also, crows don’t know English and they definitely wouldn’t understand the idiom. Do crows even go as the crow flies?
Going As the Crow Flies
If you don’t look too far into the etymology of English idioms, you might have just gone “it probably came from Edgar Allen Poe.” Because you know, he’s the edgy-black-bird-poet guy. Except he’s actually the raven guy and not the crow guy, because there’s a difference.
Further Reading: What’s the Difference Between a Crow and a Raven?
Anyway, the phrase’s French counterpart (à vol d’oiseau) doesn’t specify a bird species, it just means “by bird flight.” Why are we specifying the French? It’s because both the English and French idioms mean the same thing; and are more concerned with flying than they are with crows or birds at all. It’s about picking a straight line in between two different points–or rather taking the most efficient path. When travelling, getting to fly above any walls in your way is pretty efficient right from the get-go. But it’s also about just not worrying about any obstacles in your way. Because birds don’t do that when they’re busy lording over us with their wings. We have opposable thumbs, though. If you already use the idiom “beeline,” you can start saying “as the crow flies” for no other reason than it inflates word count.
So that’s what we’re operating with when it comes to “as the crow flies.” It means we’re picking the most efficient path between two points. This will be important later. Also hey, crows are pretty smart! So the phrase has a thing going for it, even though we probably didn’t know how smart crows were when we started using the phrase.
Origins of Crow Flying
Yeah, we know the origins of crows flying was birds. Just humor us.
One of the earlier contemporary uses of “as the crow flies” dates back to the 1760s in an early volume of The London Review of English and Foreign Literature.
“The Spaniard, if on foot, always travels as the crow flies, which the openness and dryness of the country permits; neither rivers nor the steepest mountains stop his course, he swims over the one and scales the other.”
Some theories argue that “as the crow flies” originated from nautical navigation. The whole crow’s nest on boats being used as a really high point to see over obstacles and find an efficient path. Especially because it’s been said that birds would be released from the crow’s nest as navigational assistants. Except the first use of the crow’s nest was in the early 1800s, so the phrase predates the theory in its entirety.
Do Crows Go As the Crow Flies?
We skipped the question about whether or not humans went as the crow flies because you probably figured out the answer. No. We’re pretty bad at going as the crow flies. If you’ve ever gone “oh my god what are you doing” to anyone ever, you know we are not a very efficient society–no matter where you are. In fairness, individual efficiency is a price you pay for collective action and (hopefully) function bureaucracy, but we’re going to make fun of how long it takes to get through the DMV.
So do crows actually fly in straight lines? Well they do fly over open country, which means they do have that option. Except crows don’t fly in straight lines, they often circle around their nests. Fun fact, neither do bees. But you’ve probably seen bees not going in straight lines before. Migratory birds, in general, don’t fly in straight lines as the phrase suggests. Our idiom suggests that birds fly around completely ignoring the ground below them–which they do not. Here’s a research paper on it, which is a really long way to explain “birds do not necessarily go in straight lines.”
Here are a bunch of other North American birds, which you now know don’t really fly in straight lines.