Bird researcher Marzluff (Wildlife Sciences/Univ. of Washington; The Pinyon Jay, 2010, etc.) and artist and nature writer Angell (Puget Sound Through an Artist’s Eye, 2009, etc.) look at how crows and other similar birds think, learn and remember.
Various birds in the Corvidae family—crows, ravens, magpies and others—have been observed fashioning tools out of pieces of wire, implementing multistep plans to obtain food, and even “surfing” on air currents using pieces of tree bark. All are unusually intelligent-seeming bird behaviors, and Marzluff and other researchers have devoted themselves to analyzing these “clever, opportunistic, social, and associative learner[s].” Here the authors use a mix of research results, anecdotal observations and basic neurobiology to illuminate these mysterious behaviors. The most effective section deals with Marzluff’s project in which researchers wore caveman masks when handling crows in order to gauge whether the birds recognized and remembered specific faces; they appeared to do so with uncanny accuracy. Elsewhere, the authors show how some crows, ravens and magpies are able to convincingly imitate human speech and explain how the birds’ specialized respiratory systems and relatively large brains make it possible. Marzluff and Angell also examine some wild crows’ tendency to leave small “gifts,” such as shiny objects or flowers, for humans that feed them regularly—an action that may be deliberate or simply accidental. The book isn’t without flaws: A chapter on how and why birds play gets a bit bogged down by scientific jargon, and while Angell’s illustrations of birds are exquisitely detailed, his renderings of human beings are oddly amateurish. Overall, however, the book will instill in many readers a sense of wonder and curiosity at what these birds can do.
An insightful look at some of our surprisingly capable feathered friends.