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bird-brains-book-coverA few years ago, when our eldest granddaughter was mimicking sounds and words, I delighted both of us by teaching her to “caw-caw” like a crow. Being an ardent birder, my husband Gerry taught her to sing “fee-bee” just like an Eastern Phoebe that shares her name. Sitting outdoors in the fresh morning air, we pointed out sequences of Osprey chirps and the sing-song lyrics of an Eastern Towhee (“drink-drink your tea!”)

I’m an amateur birder, absorbing just enough to detect a cardinal flitting over the yard or an eagle’s nest high over the highway. When I had some time recently to listen to an episode of one of my beloved podcasts (Ologies, with science-writer Alie Ward), I chose Corvid Thanatology. In other words, the study of crow funerals.

Obviously, the episode wasn’t as depressing or morbid as you’d think… and neither are crows. Host Alie Ward has her own unique sense of humor and most of the scientists, specialists, and researchers who join her do, too. Her guest for the October 29, 2018 episode was wildlife researcher Dr. Kaeli Swift. Listening, and then reading much more later, I learned that a crow is an extraordinary bird that mourns its dead. Crows are playful and mischievous, but they also mate for life. They are, frankly, one of the most intelligent birds on Earth.

Crows are in a family of birds named the corvids, a group that contains 120 species. The most typical are crows, ravens, jays, magpies, rooks, and jackdaws. All corvids are remarkably smart, and their skills include using tools and recognizing themselves in mirrors. Those two abilities are possessed only by humans and the more clever mammals.

Corvids’ brains, in relation to their body size, are nearly the same ratio to you and I. Corvids are located all around the world, unlike some species of birds found only in certain geographic areas, and the largest corvid is the Common Raven that can weigh in at over 3 pounds. Corvid fossils have been identified from 17 million years ago!

The first book to reach for, if you want to learn more about astonishing corvids, is Bird Brains by Candace Savage. Ms. Savage is a prolific writer in the world of wildlife, and her repertoire includes works about bees, wolves and Grizzly Bears. Bird Brains was initially published in 1995, but Savage revised and updated it in 2018 and the paperback is rich with large, full-page illustrations of crows, magpies, ravens, and jays. On one of its first pages you’ll find the words of Reverend Henry Ward Beecher: “If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows.” This undoubtedly is Savage’s opinion, as well.

In 2005, Savage wrote Crows: Encounters with the Wise Guys of the Avian World.  This book is a compilation of first-hand accounts and poetry about crows. My favorite is a poignant story, Aireala, in which the author relates her story of profound grief and the healing powers of the “bright, quirky” appearance of a beautiful black baby crow who stayed with her for a brief, but valuable, time.

John Marzluff is a professor of wildlife science and has also written two books about corvids: In the Company of Crows and Ravens (2005), and Gifts of the Crow (2012). In his second book, he explains that it is the understanding, emotion, and thought that corvids demonstrate that allows for the similarities to human behavior.

Bernd Heinrich, well-known naturalist and professor emeritus of biology at the University of Vermont, has meticulously studied ravens. In Mind of a Raven (1999), Heinrich describes his passion, especially in observing them for hours on end. He writes in One Wild Bird at a Time (2016) that while crows “can be impressively clever,” the raven has a “brain capacity roughly double that of the crow.” However, research shows that ravens are more solitary and individualistic. Crows, on the other hand, have more of a flock or community mentality. American Crows will sometimes roost with another hundred thousand birds. They are also known as devoted parents who let their young remain “home” for months or years.

Noah Strycker has been a bird-watcher much of his 33-year life. In his late twenties, he wrote The Thing with Feathers (2014), an engaging book that teaches us that all birds are brighter than we would think. He adds that corvids, especially, are not only intelligent but playful and they are mischievous thieves, as well. Most books about corvids tell tales of their playful swiping and hiding of objects.

In A Conspiracy of Ravens (2014), the University of Oxford illustrates over one-hundred birds with their collective names. Of course, most people have heard of a “rookery of penguins” and a “gaggle of geese.” But have they heard of an “ostentation of peacocks” or an “ascension of larks?” No one really knows why it’s a “murder” of crows. Some think it’s due to the black plumage or a crow’s affinity for scavenging for carrion.

The editor of Birding Magazine, Ted Floyd, writes 200 lessons about 200 birds in How to Know the Birds (2019). In one such lesson, Floyd explains that all five species of corvids (crows and ravens), are entirely black, including their eyes, bill, and feet. The pigment, or melanin, has many advantages of strength and resistance to bacteria.

Another fun book that can be read in lessons, or chunks, is BirdNote (2018) – stories of birds on BirdNote produced by PRI or the Public Radio Institute. These are the same stories that were broadcast by Seattle-Tacoma public radio and are now listed to across 200 radio stations in the US and Canada. One story tells the tale of “giant avian slumber” parties.

While you are at it, you might as well read this small book: aaaaw to zzzzzd: the Words of Birds by John Bevis. In it, you’ll learn that while the Fish Crow belts out “cah,” the American Crow exclaims “caw” or “caw caw caw caw coodle yah.” Try teaching that longer version to your grandchild!

Charlotte Canelli is the Director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, MA. Look for her article in the June 27, 2019 issue of the Transcript and Bulletin.


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