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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars NEXT TIME I SEE A CROW, I'M GONNA RUN!!!, 24 Aug 2008
This review is from: Bird Brains: The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies, and Jays (Paperback)
When I got this book last week, I was initially somewhat disappointed. I had expected something more humorous or absurd. I mean, a "coffee table book" about CROWS?! Sounds like the ultimate dada, LOL! When I looked through the book, I also instantly saw a major whooper: the author (or perhaps her editor - the error is in the photo captions) claim that Hooded Crows are black and...wait for it...WHITE.

WHAT?????

I live in Sweden, where there are Hooded Crows everywhere, and I can assure you that they are, of course, black and grey. And yes, you can check a standard, scientific reference work at your university library, unless you don't believe me. :-D

Be that as it may, when I actually started reading the book, I realized that the rest of it isn't that bad, after all. As another reviewer pointed out: it depends on what exactly you are looking for. It's not a field guide to crows and their allies, nor is it a original scientific study. Rather, "Bird Brains" is a popularized introduction to the subject of crows and their intelligence, intended for the general reader. The author, Candance Savage, is a Canadian author and nature-lover (and yes, crow-lover!). The book is lavishly illustrated with photos of crows, ravens, jays, jackdaws and magpies. All photos are in color. Some are quite dramatic, for instance a photo of a crow challenging a Bald Eagle, and another showing magpies sitting on bisons, not to mention a photo of two magpies chasing a crow! (As you might have guessed, I'm a magpie-lover myself.) The text is pretty basic, but it's well-written and interesting. I think the book could be an excellent gift to both adults and teenagers, including people with only a passing interest in birds.

The main point of "Bird Brains" is that crows, ravens and other corvids are surprisingly intelligent creatures. In laboratory tests, ravens have showed abilities on the level of chimpanzees, and above the level of monkeys. One raven could count to six, another learned how to fill a small cup with water and moisturize his food, simply by observing a laboratory assistant. The raven wasn't specifically trained to perform this task - he learned it anyway. Both ravens and crows can mimick human speech, just like parrots or mynabirds, and the most humorous situation in the book involves a crow that could say "Three, two, one" and then mimick the sound of an explosion. Apparently, the crow had spent some quality time near a building site.

The most spooky situation mentioned in the book involved a raven that learned to say "Come" and somehow taught another raven to join him every time he uttered the command! The ravens lived in a laboratory, and were mimicking their trainer. Flexible instincts? Real intelligence? A little bit of both? A short work like this cannot answer the question, just pose it. One thing is certain: if a corvid would start talking to me outside the local shopping mould, I would start running!

On a more sober note, "Bird Brains" also mentions situations where corvids don't act very intelligently, where they are indeed driven by pure instinct. For instance, crows and their relatives don't recognize their own chicks, but automatically feeds whatever happens to be in the nest (something not mentioned in the book is that this dumbness is taken advantage of by cuckoos - at least one species of cuckoo specializes in parasitizing corvids). Only when the chicks leave the nest do their parents start recognizing them, even in large flocks. Savage also mentions several instances of rank stupidity among the jackdaws studied by the famous Konrad Lorenz. Apparently, the jackdaws attacked poor Lorenz every time he held up a black object, thinking the object was a jackdaw in need of assistance!

Still, corvids (the quaint scientific term for crowbirds) are remarkably intelligent, and this book may wet your appetite for learning more about the intelligence of birds. Perhaps I'll order Irene Pepperberg's books about Alex next. It's about that other fascinating group of intelligent birds: parrots.

Four stars! (Yepp, I had to delete one star because of that Hooded Crow thing, no offense.)
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