on 9 November 2008
Corvus is an enchanting book. There is no sentimentality here - indeed, Esther Woolfson goes to rigorous lengths to avoid anthropomorphism - and yet the entire book is infused with warmth, charm and humanity, whilst the birds themselves - very much the stars of the piece - are quite wonderful. The episodic narrative, charting the author's own journey of avian experience and discovery - punctuated by digressions on topics such as birds in folklore, bird physiology, bird evolution, bird flight and bird song - is completely compelling: I could barely put it down. The expositions themselves are equally interesting, hugely informed and informing, but never daunting. Beautifully written, the prose is spare but elegant, seemingly almost taking on the metre of bird song itself. Other significant themes also run, almost imperceptibly, through the book: the art of 'seeing' and observation, the scientific method, the idea of 'North', the comfort of home and family. This is not a 'heavy' book - it first came to my attention through hearing a very brief extract on (BBC) Radio 4 - but there is great sensitivity and wisdom here. If you've ever stood at a window or sat on a bench and watched a bird walk or hop or feed or fly, then Corvus will almost certainly enrich your life and provide a fresh, new perspective the next time you see a rook, crow, magpie or one of their feathered relations. A joy from cover to cover.
on 7 January 2011
This is a great read and a must for all slightly geeky, warm-hearted nature lovers. Although I'm already a keen birdwatcher, my eyes were opened to the intriguing world of these often maligned but undeniably splendid and intelligent birds. Esther Woolfson provides a lovely mixture of corvid science, ecology and folklore alongside her personal experiences and anecdotes of sharing her home with various birds including a rook (Chicken) and a magpie (Spike). I found this blend of fact and fiction very well balanced. At a stroke I was learning details of corvid social behaviour and brain power, alongside stories of superstition and myth.
But what really made it for me were the relationships between Esther and the helpless infant corvids that, having fallen from their family nests, she took in and raised in her home in Aberdeen. Nurturing and living with Chicken and Spike gave Esther an unprecedented opportunity to study corvid behaviour. Her love and care of these birds is evident, as is her awareness and respect for them as wild and highly independent-minded creatures. The description of the greeting ritual between the author and Chicken each morning is very touching - how many people do you know who've had the priviledge of bowing and greeting a adult female rook at the bottom of their stairs each morning?!!
I hope others enjoy Corvus as much as I did.
on 8 December 2009
Lucid and entertaining account of a woman who has spent much of her life looking after birds, especially one rook (called 'Chicken') and a magpie ('Spike'). She writes beautifully about the countryside of north-east Scotland, observing the natural world with great care and attention, and her affection for her bird companions doesn't descend into tweeness or sentimentality, though she sometimes takes issue with what she considers the unreasonable dismissal as `anthropomorphism' of behaviours such as play and enjoyment.
The lives of her rescued birds are related with great humour and a freedom from pre-judgement that makes them all the more convincing. We have almost a cultural dislike of crows and magpies, a tradition of seeing them as birds of ill omen and these days blaming the latter for the drop in numbers of small garden birds; Woolfson refutes this. Titbits about their preferences, their ways of showing (she believes) empathy, their jokes (Spike likes to create booby-traps by balancing objects on the top of doors) and the way they continue to display innate behaviours though confined to the house, are fascinating. The birds are never `house-trained' but she is able to deal philosophically with this, and with their unsavoury habit of caching perishable foodstuff under the carpets and cushions.
This is a hugely enjoyable and accomplished book, acclaimed by Mark Cocker and other distinguished names. It should appeal to amateur or expert.
Maybe Robert Macfarlane and Jay Griffiths should be forced to read this book, because without a single overdressed metaphor, without a single unnecessary word of any kind, it tells a series of subtle, clear and profoundly moving stories. It's a delight to meet Spike, and Chicken, and the other birds who soar and wing through the pages, the rhythmical, shapely pages. Envy! I wish I'd written this. Observation wonderful. Interesting that birds are so despised. I read this because having kept chickens I've also come to know and feed jackdaws and rooks, and all three kinds of bird are so bright and so interesting that I simply can't see why we once despised them. I shall read the sequel, if any.
'Corvus' is Esther Woolfson's account of living with birds - in particular, with three foundling corvids: a rook, a magpie, and, at the very end of the book, a crow. Birds of other kinds also make their appearances; but Woolfson's focus is on these three intelligent, characterful individuals.
Woolfson is not a naturalist by profession. Her story is that of a human family living with members of a different species in an unusually integrated way. The birds live in her house in Aberdeen and are in effect domestic partners and companions, as cats or dogs would be in another household. Around the events of their lives Woolfson weaves an unhurried meditation on our relationship with birds that never forgets that they are not human, but allows for observation of their capacity for interacting with humans that a more scientific perspective might dismiss. The mixture of anecdote and information keeps the narrative moving, and the author has an engaging style that sometimes seems to verge on something more serious but never becomes portentous.
I read the book because I am interested in corvids. It is not - and does not try to be - a scientific reference; it offers instead the perspective of a bird lover who has lived with corvids for extended periods of time, and captures very well the enduring fascination of these birds.
The twenty or so black-and-white illustrations add relatively little to the book. There is a useful bibliography.
on 13 May 2015
I finished it! Just! I rarely give up on a book: I like to give the author a chance. With this one, I nearly did. Just as I was about to – at Kindle 72% – I hit the “illustrations, notes, acknowledgements” and a rather bizarre “index”. I realised I didn’t have to read any more.
The tale was very interesting, some might say inspiring, but the way it was told was drear in the extreme. The author clearly had not made up her mind whether she was writing narrative or a scientific treatise: it failed on both counts.
I am very interested in birds and thought this book might tell me more about them. It did, but the writing was soul-destroying. Sentences of more than 100 words and minimal punctuation leave the reader lost and confused. The nineteenth century masters could do it – but then they remembered to use colons or semi-colons to indicate where things were going.
But one of the most appalling aspects of this book was the regurgitated thesaurus effect giving streams of synonyms or near synonyms (hence some of the 100 word sentences) which were totally unnecessary and detracted from the tale. Clearly it was hoped a scattergun approach would provide the right word, even if the author was not sure what that word should be.
Finally, at the end of my Kindle download, I was informed she had written another book. I must question if there were any words left in her thesaurus?
on 21 August 2008
The main theme of Corvus is the story of a baby rook owned by the autor but it also concerns broader subjects such as natural history and wild birds.
The parts about Woolfsons pet birds are a funny and touching potrait of a family and their pets, a little remeniscent of "my family and other animals".
The parts about natural history are more serious and require concentration but well worth it particularly the parts discussing birds relationship to dinosaurs.
I really loved this and hope that Esther Woolfson writes more of the same.
This is a delightfully humorous and touching account of a life shared with birds. Okay, you might think, nothing so extraordinary about that, but these birds are not your common-or-garden budgies-in-a cage. It all started when Esther Woolfson took on a small flock of doves and became fascinated by them; eventually she gained a reputation as someone who knew about birds and when a tiny, almost bald, rook was brought to her what could she do but take her in. And so began her life with Chicken, who is later joined by Spike the magpie and various other feathered people. Her whole family become involved and quickly come to love these feathered additions to the household.
It is difficult not to become involved with the antics of these birds as they enjoy the run of the house. They have distinct personalities, and although the author is at pains not to humanise these wonderful creatures, one can't help but become immersed in this household. There are chapters about birds in folklore, birdsong, bird physiology all of which are interesting and quite different in tone, and it's obvious the author knows her stuff, and when she doesn't she knows how to do her research, which was certainly the case when it came to feeding tiny birds of different breeds.
The author explains her dilemma in having these essentially wild birds in her home, living what is an unnatural life. What would have happened to them had she not taken them in? Had they survived - which is doubtful as they had fallen out of their nests - they would almost certainly have been able to fly, nest and breed in the wild, albeit with a much shorter life. However living in the confines of a house they seem to have enjoyed a happy life, and we, through the pages of this book, are able to learn more about these wonderful corvids. I've always loved watching wild birds - I'm no twitcher, but I now find myself eagerly awaiting the daily arrival of a couple of magpies on my lawn - they see me first, I know, because no sooner is the food put down than they're there. They are fascinating to watch as they strut around. proudly showing off their black and white dinner suits. Wonderful.
An enchanting read for anyone interested in nature in general and wild birds in particular.
This review is for the paperback version - not the Kndle version.
Esther Woolfson has written a truly exceptional book, written with a great deal of grace and gentle intimacy, relating her life as a lover of birds, initially, parrots, a magpie (Spike), a whole dovecot of doves, and the star of the show, the endearing crow named Chicken. It wouldn't suit me, personally, but she writes so engagingly and so brilliantly about these creatures that one begins to see their attraction. She has built up a great deal of knowledge about these birds over the years and has welcomed these birds into her life. Many of them are fledgelings, accidentally fallen from the nest or rescued from imminent demise by cat, or other predator. She is factual and unsentimental and goes to a great deal of trouble to learn everything she can about these, at first thought, rather repellent creatures. One has to say she writes beautifully:
"In time Chicken developed her full adult plumage and became as she is now, beautiful, as are all crows, rooks, ravens, magpies. She is in every aspect, as they all are, in every movement, a sharp, tenebrous grace in her stillness, in her wings and feet and head. Corvids' beaks are balanced, proportionate, burnished and striated like the metal of a Damascene sword. The Japanese word `shibu' most encapsulates for me what they are and how they look, a word defined as `austere, simple, quietly beautiful.'" On the subject of her empathy for these birds she is unfailingly eloquent. She admits: "I may be wrong, too anxious to see them as capable of such emotional range, but to have a magpie, on seeing me weep, hover on top of the fridge, wings outstretched, tremble for a few moments then fly down to my knee to crouch, squeaking quietly, edging ever nearer until his body was close against mine seemed to me at the time ... an act of unexpected tenderness that I can interpret only as empathy."
I found this book unexpectedly moving, thoughtful, deeply interesting in it's feeling for the strangeness and wonder of Crows, which are the most intelligent of their species. This is a wonderful book.
on 26 May 2010
Oh I absolutely loved this book.Esther Woolfson writes so beautifully and with such elegance and grace.The stories of her birds and their place in the family are gripping and funny but I don't think you even need to like birds much to enjoy this book.Anyone will finish it with a new respect for corvids and a different perspective as you spot them anew all around us.I read this,loved it,bought it for five or six people and lent it to several others and everyone has enjoyed it enormously.