This last trip had an interesting twist: I left with all non-fiction.
One of these non-fiction books was Gifts of the Crow, by John Marzluff and Tony Angell. It is dissertation on the nature of corvids–crows, ravens, jays, magpies, etc.–and through the use of anecdotes and field studies, it illustrates how intelligent these birds are, and how many analogues exist between their behavior and ours.
Marzluff is a veteran ornithological biologist and Professor of Wildlife Science at the University of Washington, here in Seattle. Angell is an illustrator whose line drawings accompany the text, and whose schematics of the corvid brain and anatomy fill the appendices. Let’s face it: these guys know their stuff.
It’s an intriguing subject for me. Ravens and crows are strong spiritual icons both here in the Pacific Northwest, and throughout the Native American cultures I studied for the novels of my Fallen Cloud Saga. Personally, blue jays (like the Steller’s jays that come to my deck and jeer at me until I give them some peanuts) are among my favorite birds. I’ve often noted how adaptable, how intelligent these birds seem to be. Their behavior always seemed to be a step more advanced than the other birds that frequent our back garden. In short, when I regarded the crows and jays that live around me, I often felt that there was someone in those birds, regarding me in return.
I found much to like in this book, but overall I was disappointed.
I never expect wonderful prose in non-fiction books, especially when written by scientists, and in that way Gifts of the Crow fulfilled my predictions. The language is clear and unfussy–a good thing in a book on any scientific subject–but when the authors tried to “write purdy” and paint a more literary picture, they only tripped over clichés and old saws. Thankfully, they didn’t try to do this often, and it did not detract from the book as a whole. There’s also the clumsy way the authors referred to themselves, mixing the first-person “we” with the third person “John,” sometimes in the same sentence. While grammatically correct, it was clunky and put me off the pace.
But these stylistic items were small annoyances, easily forgotten when the authors got into their subject matter.
And that subject matter is corvid behavior. The chapters of the book are each dedicated to behaviors we normally associate with humans and so-called “higher order” animals, not with birds. Chapters such as “Language,” “Insight,” and “Frolic” set us up for a shift in our perceptions of these birds, and indeed, the evidence the authors present does so with ease. Through extensive use of anecdotes, submitted and collected over decades of research, the authors show us how this remarkable family of birds not only behave like we do, but in fact think like we do. With experimental evidence and clear, understandable language, they explain and interpret the observations, taking us through their analysis of the results step by step. While obviously impressed with these birds, the authors don’t let their emotions cloud their scientific judgment, questioning everything about each anecdote, including “Are they pulling our chain?”
The behavior of corvids really is amazing. They can use mimicry of sounds and human speech, they give gifts to one another and to friendly humans, they grieve over losses and often hold the corvid analog of funerals, and they play and tease and make friends with other species like dogs, cats, and humans. They rage over threats and insults. They have long, long memories, such as the crow on the UofW campus who remembered the researcher who captured and banded him, and who for years afterward–no matter how many months it had been since the researcher visited the campus–always jeered and dive-bombed him as he walked across the quad.
These insights into the intellect and explanations of the behavior of corvids are the heart of this book, and well worth the trouble.
Trouble? Did I say trouble? Yes…trouble.
The authors of Gifts of the Crow get into trouble when they start talking about the corvid brain. It’s not that they don’t know what they’re talking about. On the contrary, they get into trouble because they do know what they’re talking about, and they talk about it a lot.
Each chapter–almost all of the first chapters, in fact–has a section where the authors explain the intricate workings of the physical brain. They explain how the human brain works, and how the corvid brain performs the same functions in a radically different way. They explain the history of research into bird brains, and they explain–in excruciating detail–how the various chemicals, hormones, and opioids work with the various receptors, neurons, and sections of the brain.
I understand that these guys are scientists and I understand that there are some readers out there who are very interested in the inner workings of the brain, but I am neither of these things. When I am reading along, enjoying a story or anecdote, learning about a particular experiment, and then suddenly hit a section that talks of norepinephrine, the amygdala, the hypothalamus, kappa-receptors, and the nucleus accumbens, I have to downshift radically and put my brain into four-wheel-drive just to get through it. I would have much preferred for all this to have been put into one chapter by itself instead of it coming up again and again. Better yet, I would prefer if it had been left out entirely, and replaced with more information on clinical studies of corvids or experiments on their behavior (a topic that seemed rather thin through the book; perhaps there isn’t much lab study of crows?)
Between the dense neurobiology sections and the hefty appendices, I probably skimmed/skipped close to half of the book, which spells failure in my estimation.
Half of this book was great, educational, easy to read, and changed my perceptions of my corvid neighbors forever. The other half was written for an audience other than the general public, and should have been kept aside for use in peer-reviewed journals.