-If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows."
Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, c.
Like coyotes, some
members of the crow family have long been considered vermin.
Scruffy crows steal crops; ravens rip into garbage; magpies and
jays steal eggs and nestlings from "innocent" songbirds. Yet, like
coyotes, the birds endure. Why? In Bird Brains: The Intelligence of
Crows, Ravens, Magpies, and Jays, Canadian writer Candace Savage
tells us that members of the corvid family are among the smartest
creatures on earth. They learn fast, share knowledge with each
other and adapt seemingly in an instant. Since crows don't separate
once paired, Savage tells us birds assess one another's fitness
through play. Young male ravens show off, for instance, flying
loops and double loops in the air. Anything but feathered machines
rigidly programmed by their genes, "they are beings that, within
the constraints of their molecular inheritance, make complex
decisions and show every sign of enjoying a rich awareness." We've
seen evidence of that in our backyard, where magpies have learned
that a 70-lb. sheepdog isn't quick enough to defend his kibble; the
long-tailed birds even chase the lumbering dog around a bush.
Savage is a deft writer, and the color photos, illustrations and
quotations are just right.
Sierra Club Books, 730
Polk St., San Francisco, CA 94109: $25, published 1995, 134
* Betsy Marston