Bird Brains

  • Bird brain: It's a compliment

    Art Wolfe
  -If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows."

* Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, c. 1880s

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 pages.

* Betsy Marston
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