by Lisa Runyon
This is not a book review of David Welky’s A Wretched and Precarious Situation: In search of the Last Arctic Frontier. I carried that beast to my hotel room every night on my spring break trip through south Texas’ World Birding Centers, fully intending to read and write a review for this newsletter. Instead, I lost my heart to an unexpected treasure I found in a gift shop in Harlingen’s Arroyo Colorado World Birding Center.
The tall, stark white spine with the title Bird Brains caught my attention among the myriad of field guides. Bird Brains? Is that an insult? I pulled it out and was met with a striking cover featuring a close-up of a bird so black it was almost blue. It was then that the subtitle gave it away: The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies, and Jays. Who among us has not had an encounter with these birds? Loud to the point of obnoxious, aggressive, beautiful, yet kind of scary thanks to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. I never thought of these birds as anything special, let alone intelligent. This book has changed my mind!
Beyond any field guide, Bird Brains by Candace Savage, is part coffee-table book with its stunning photographs and 10×10 format and part meta-analysis of scientific research with a dash of engaging sidebars recalling the influence of crows and ravens in literature throughout the ages. Classified as members of the genus Corvus, there are 113 species of crow-like birds in the world. This group, known as corvids, includes our local American Crow, Blue Jay, and Common Raven. A handy graphic included in the book illustrates typical corvids, provides a brief description of the bird and map of their territory. Go most anywhere in the world and you will find a corvid who has adapted to that area. The author makes the point that in many parts of the world, corvophobia is a sad reality. Some folks think that corvids are “vermin that need to be eradicated.” However, keep reading, and I bet you will start to see corvids in a new light.
The main thrust of the book is building a case for the intelligence of the corvids. While lacking an elaborate cerebral cortex you’d find in mammals, these birds have a well-developed hyperstriatum within their brain, the largest among any birds. In fact, their brain-to-body ratio equals that of dolphins and almost our own! Ok, brain size is one thing, genetic programming is another, but do these birds make conscious decisions? Problem solve? Learn?
Ms. Savage, the author, explores the scientific evidence for corvid intelligence from studies involving nest-building, mating, and communications, to name a few areas. She is careful to differentiate between instinct and demonstrations of higher intelligence. Yes, the data is convincing – corvids do exhibit higher intelligence! For example, consider the language of corvids, one of the most studied areas. Caws, croaks, screams, pants, and chatter vary between species, regions, and moods. Ravens, which “probably produce a greater variety of sounds than any other animal except ourselves” has up to 64 different sounds which convey a variety of meanings “subtly altered by the individual’s emotions and its circumstances.” While you may or may not be convinced by the scientific findings, you will be able to relate the facts to your own observations and think about the corvids in a different way.
So, the next time you are cawing to that crow and the crow sizes you up and caws back, think about it. Would you get the same response from a house sparrow? A dove? After reading Bird Brains, I understand what authors throughout history knew all along – there is something special about corvids worth writing about!