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Corvus: A Life with Birds

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16 years ago, Esther Woolfson's daughter rescued a fledgling rook. That rook, named Chicken, has lived with the family ever since - along with a talking magpie named Spike and a crow named Ziki. A blend of memoir and natural history, this book brings Chicken and the others vividly to life.

288 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2008

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About the author

Esther Woolfson

8 books20 followers
Esther Woolfson was brought up in Glasgow and studied Chinese at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Edinburgh University.

Her critically acclaimed short stories have appeared in many anthologies including 'New Writing Scotland' and several volumes of 'Scottish Short Stories'and have been read on Radio 4.

She has won prizes for them and for nature writing. She was awarded a Scottish Arts Council Travel Grant which enabled her to travel in Poland and Lithuania.

Esther won the Waterstone's/Arvon short prize prize for her short story 'Passing On' and her short story 'Statues' was shortlisted for the Macallan Prize.

Her short story,'Chagall' is in the Scottish Arts Council on-line short story archive and her article, 'Trump in Scotland' was published in the American magazine n+1.

Her book on natural history, Corvus was published by Granta in August, 2008. It was Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4. Her novel Piano Angel was published by Two Ravens Press October 2008.

Esther took part in an Artists' Residency at Aberdeen University's Centre for Environmental Sustainability. She gave a paper on the relationship between the arts and science, in which she examined the breaking-down of the traditional separation between the disciplines.

Esther was Writer in Residence at Kielder as part of the Hexham Book Festival in 2012.

'Field Notes From a Hidden City' is about the relationship between the urban and the 'wild', between the people who live in cities and the most common species who share our living space - pigeons, spiders, rats, squirrels. It touches on themes of biology, climate change, phenology and the ethics of human-animal relations. It is published in February 2013.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 159 reviews
Profile Image for Caroline.
498 reviews557 followers
December 27, 2020
As I write, the bird is behind me on her branch. From time to time she mutters, a sound softly bearing the imprint of the wind and the movement of trees, gentle approbation or comment, like the faintest creaking of an ancient door. Soon I'll hear the fine clicking of her toenails on the wood floor as she walks across to stand by my desk. When I lower my hand to her, she'll press into it an offering. It will be a damp morsel of bread, sodden, its substance now almost unidentifiable, this daily token of what I hope is love.

Esther Woolfson writes with an infectious respect and affection of the birds that have shared her life. A cockatiel, a dovecote full of doves, a starling, two canaries, a rook and two crows, but mostly she writes about the charming, eccentric and intelligent corvids who have shared her home for many years. These came to her as fledglings which had fallen out of their nests. She doesn't delve too deeply into the ethics of keeping wild birds in her house, or whether it would have been feasible to set them free. As things worked out, the crows seemed well adapted to domestic life, the magpie less so, but he died for unknown reasons when still comparatively young, so she really didn't have to deal with that issue. I got the impression that life in the wild for corvids is fairly brutish and short, and maybe I'm over anthropomorphising, but the quality of life enjoyed by the birds who share her home seems pretty good to me.

She writes about her personal interactions with these birds, but also follows various threads of research into their biology, the myths around them, their behaviour in the wild and their various forms of communication. The full breadth of corvid life is explored. At times she broadens out into describing wider bird issues as well, like the structure of birds' eyes, or the methods they use to guide themselves when flying, specifically during migration, or their evolution - but mostly she deals with corvids.

My favourite parts of the book were her descriptions of her personal interactions and observations with these birds

Or as here....

Her description of the corvids' caching is delightful - until I read this book I was unaware of this behaviour.

I was also very interested to learn about moulting, which is something I'd heard about vaguely in relation to chickens, but of course it makes sense that other birds experience this too. The author suggests that her birds are disconcerted by the process.

Although it's something I have often observed amongst birds, I was also touched to read her description of the degree to which her magpie was fastidious about his cleanliness

Of course their intelligence was mentioned, interestingly it was related to them having to negotiate life in social communities.

Finally, she speaks of the mental riches that she feels are shared by humans and corvids alike...

I finished the book wanting to rush out into the park and scrabble beneath trees, in the hope of finding a fledgling crow that could do with rescuing. Fortunately it is winter, so my enthusiasm was curbed.....
Profile Image for BrokenTune.
750 reviews202 followers
August 6, 2017
GR is way too cumbersome to post picture, so for a more colourful version of the below, please visit here.

Birds have arrived, the chosen and the unwanted, the damaged, the accidentally displaced from nests. They have stayed, or gone, leaving, all of them, their own determined avian imprint, entirely unrelated to size or species, and with each has been established an enduring sense of connection, one that extends far, towards a world, a life, a society, of which once I knew nothing at all.

Of all of them, it has been the corvids, the rook, magpie and crow, who have altered for ever my relationship to the rest of the world, altered my view of a hierarchy of form, intellect, ability; my concept of time.

I have no idea how I found this book, but since it tells of the author’s life with a rescue rook named Chicken and both live only a few minutes across the city, I had to read this. I like ravens, crows, rooks, magpies, etc. They have always seemed to me to combine an underestimated intelligence with and equally under-appreciated sense of quirky, whimsical fun.

Anyway, Corvus tells the story of how the author has come to adopt doves, rats, parrots, Chicken (the rook), Spike (a magpie), and Ziki (another crow).

The main character – if that is fair to say – was Chicken.

We named her, a choice probably now too prosaic, too frivolous for the dignity she’s attained. It was derived from a piece in the edition of the New Yorker I was reading at the time, mention of a drag artist called, I think, Madame Chickeboumskaya. Thus, she is Chicken.

Woolfson uses her stories of Chicken to tell of the various things she’s learned about rescuing birds, and the differences between the different birds that she has encountered. Her love for living beings, irrespective of species, is thought-provoking, and her knowledge of the local history of Aberdeen, the Shire, and the different birds in the area, is fascinating. Her biggest love are the members of the crow family and the book imparts many a fact about them by anecdote:

Not only do they recognise one another, corvids can recognise individual humans, and there are countless stories of people involved in crow research of one sort or another being singled out from among large, busy crowds to be personally, individually subjected to harassment, a kind of revenge, no doubt, for what crows appear to regard as unwarranted scientific attention.

But Woolfson also injects some humour into the book. As she’s in an unusual situation, she also recounts several encounters with neighbours, tradesmen, friends and family who, over the years, have had to get used to feathered family members.

It didn’t take long for us to realise that our love of corvids was not universal. The girls’ friends in particular regarded us as an outpost of the Addams family, intriguing, strange, potentially sinister. The only grounds for their view (as far as I know) was the presence of Chicken.

As I mentioned, the author lives in Aberdeen. Many of her descriptions of the city are very familiar to me. Yet, I also loved learning new things about those locations. I recently had cause to spend time in the vicinity of Aberdeen Grammar School, a rather impressive building of Baronial style. I have often wondered about the reason for Byron’s statue in the front of the building, but never enough to look it up.
Woolfson came to my rescue there – and of course adds some crow related information, too:

I pass a statue of Byron every day. For a brief time in 1794, he attended Aberdeen Grammar School when he was living here with his mother. Despite the brevity of his sojourn, his statue stands in bronze-robed solemnity and magnificence in front of the school’s splendid granite façade. As I pass, I salute the man. I am unmoved by Lady Caroline Lamb’s famously damning designation of him, because nothing can alter the fact that it speaks well of a man when he cares about his pet crow’s toe.

But, back to Chicken: She sounds like a brilliant bird, the kind of feathered companion that I have only encountered in one other bookish adventure – the Thursday Next series. What was more, there is one memory that Woolfson shares that very much moved me because it reminded me so much of Pickwick, my beloved fictional Dodo.

I loved that part. Not only because of the event itself but also because it showed Woolfson’s appreciation for the peculiarity of her situation. It comes across in other parts of the book, too, when she describes how the things we can see everyday – if we choose to look! – may actually be rather special.

I am not a twitcher but I do like to look at birds and other animals around, even if I can’t name them. So, when Woolfson ventures to describe her attempts at seeing other wild birds in this area, I took notes – especially of when not to try and find pink-footed geese!

We turn down the road towards the Loch of Strathbeg and park under the awning with its wooden stanchions. We are the only people here. It has felt intermittently today as if we’re the only people anywhere. There is a farm building, now converted to a hide. We look out of the broad windows over the loch. The literature on the table tells us the facts, the numbers, that 20 per cent of the world’s population of pink-footed geese are to be found here at this time of year. On this particular day, though, they’re not. I don’t know where they are, the 20 per cent (which is many, many geese. On some days, thirty thousand.) I don’t know where they’ve gone but they’re not here. The loch is empty. Like us, they have gone out for the day. No one, no bird, stirs. There are no whooper swans, no wigeon, no teal. As bird watchers, we have failed. The grey water and reeds are stirred by wind. There are no geese.

I really enjoyed Corvus. I loved Woolfson’s descriptions of Aberdeen, I loved her enthusiasm for wildlife, for protecting habitats, her advocacy for much maligned species. It is not just Chicken, and rooks/crows in general, that she tries to rehabilitate from a bad reputation. She also turns her enthusiasm to starlings and pigeons – tho, I learned that doves are essentially vicious, and she obviously does not even mention the Aberdonian seagull (thieving spawn of the devil!) who are universally acknowledged to be beyond redemption. ;)

There is another member of the corvid family that the author “adopted” – Spike the magpie. This was another section I really enjoyed because, other than the myths of folklore, I knew very little about them, even though I often delight in watching a pair of magpies from my kitchen window.

In a book on the wildlife of this city I read that, for a long time, there were few magpies in Aberdeen. They began, it is suggested, inhabiting suburban locations in the late 1940s, moving over the decades to establish themselves in urban parks and gardens. Where were they before that?

I had no idea their nesting in the city centre was only as recent as that. When watching the two that nest in the garden at the back of my building (together with some other birds), it seems like this is their natural environment and like they have never been anywhere else.

‘Thieving’. ‘Aggressive’. ‘Cursed’. What was it about this bird? Could it be as simple as the fact that magpies are black and white? It seemed too much for one small bird to bear, all that’s contained, all that’s implied in the cultural and religious canons of Western civilisation, the symbolic, iconographic poles of culture and ideas: black and white. Heaven and earth, life, death, good, evil, light, darkness, all things fundamental, elemental, reductio ad absurdum, a universe of fears combined to obscure the evolutionary process that delivered this startling bird into a world that appears still unready for it.
Profile Image for Judith Johnson.
Author 1 book86 followers
December 18, 2018
I love black birds of all kinds - blackbirds, of course, with their cheery whistling, yellow beaks, and bright inquisitive eyes, but also crows, rooks and ravens.

Some years back back I bought the book Corvus - A Life with Birds by Esther Woolfson (Granta), for my son Tom, since we've always shared a joy in watching birds in the garden. I'd heard extracts from the book read on BBC Radio 4 while driving. I later borrowed it from Tom, and found it a rich, enjoyable read. I was amused and delighted, but also informed - perfect result. This is what I like best about reading!

I was interested to read about the author's experience of, and love for, the birds which she has shared her house and garden with. The bird-watchers I regularly chat to at Bough Beech pooh-poohed the idea that anyone who takes birds from the wild into their house should be taken seriously. However, I think even they might enjoy this book.

Esther Woolfson tells her readers about the prejudices and myths surrounding the corvid family, and I am glad to have had my mind opened on the subject. I must admit to always having had a slightly ambivalent attitude to magpies. At primary school our teacher taught us that when we saw a magpie we should always say "Good afternoon, Mr Magpie, and how is your wife today?" in order to avoid bad luck, and I did just that for many years!

There are many thoughts expressed beautifully in Corvus, but here is one of my favourite quotes:

"To believe that humans have a monopoly of the things that deepen life on this earth - memory, appreciation, imagination, emotion - seems both arrogant and simplistic; to imagine that, without a language we recognise, birds and animals exist in a world of thoughtlessness, of lesser communication, lesser feeling, surely wrong."
Profile Image for Penny.
325 reviews81 followers
January 25, 2017
2017 is the year when I (try to) stop ordering, buying, borrowing, downloading new books and read some of the literally hundreds that have been on my bookshelves for some time.
Corvus: A Life with Birds is the first one I selected, and it was a great choice.
Woolfson mainly tells us about life with Chicken, the 'rescue rook' that lives as part of their family in North East Scotland. But we also get to learn about other birds that share the house - much as I might love them there is no way I could cope with the inevitable 'mess' they leave everywhere.
Woolfson just gets out her paint scraper and disinfectant and cleans it up! Frequently by the sound of it!
I wouldn't be exaggerating if I said that she loves her birds deeply. She frets and worries about them as she would children.
There's no room for sentimentality though and Woolfson constantly tries to come to terms with the guilt she feels especially about Chicken. By keeping her 'imprisoned' in a house she will live longer, have constant access to food, no predators etc. But this isn't the natural way of a rook of course - and yet to have not looked after Chicken would have probably meant her very early demise.
I loved the study of corvid behaviour mixed with superstition and myth.
The book frequently made me laugh too. Beautifully written, very touching - really enjoyed it.

Profile Image for Viv JM.
689 reviews154 followers
June 22, 2020
During the lockdown, Granta Books offered a number of their titles as ebooks for 99p with a different theme each week. I grabbed this on a whim during their nature week and it turned out to be the perfect lockdown read - an antidote to the pull of the constant doom and gloom news cycle.

As the title suggests, this is an account of the author's "life with birds" with emphasis on the corvids she has rescued and raised, including a magpie, a crow and star of the show - Chicken the Rook. Interspersed with the memoir are passages about birds in general eg the anatomy of flight, birds in myth and legend and so on. It is a slightly rambling and directionless read at times but Woolfson has a wonderful way with words and I thoroughly enjoyed this.
Profile Image for Richard.
Author 1 book38 followers
August 21, 2022
I already knew this whole family of birds (crows, rooks, ravens and so on) to be intelligent, even self-aware some claim, but reading Corvus I still found there's a lot more to them than I'd realised.
    Woolfson's is the sort of home I reckon every kid should grow up in: ordinary suburban house on the outside, inside it's another world because she takes in stray birds. There's Bardie the cockatiel, Icarus the (non-flying) parrot, Marley the sun conure, Max the starling... What really changed her life though was the arrival of a rescued rook chick, immediately named Chicken; rooks are brainy, yes, as smart as apes perhaps, but it's also emotions, empathy, playfulness: personality. In fact, with Chicken there's even a touch of eccentricity as she eventually settles into a daily routine, becomes almost old-ladyish in some of her ways. Chicken snores, Chicken prefers J S Bach to Benjamin Britten, and here's how you start a typical day in the Woolfson household: "On meeting in the hall of a morning, we bow. She caws and I greet her. We bow again. She caws. I bow. She bows. I ask after her health. She caws. Eventually, we reach the kitchen."
    And then there's Spike. Sure, I knew crows and rooks are intelligent, but magpies? - I just had no idea at all. Spike the magpie chick sort of explodes across the pages like a box of black-and-white fireworks all going off at once, and grows rapidly into an exuberant and playful rascal who Woolfson herself reckons was the brightest of all the birds who lived with her. He's as good a mimic as any parrot; he booby-traps a cupboard door and then cackles with glee as a human gets drenched. And is he conscious? Of course he's conscious (to even ask seems ridiculous now). Singlehandedly, Spike transformed for ever the way I'll look at his entire species.
    This book is as full of wisdom, colour and life as the birds themselves (with some lovely illustrations too by Helen Macdonald) and if at times it's just a tad anthropomorphic, well maybe it is - although with animals so like ourselves as these, how much of it actually is anthropomorphism? In fact for me, as for Woolfson, that's what is most striking: "It's the points of similarity between us that delight me still. I admire the birds' anger and their rage, for I too (perhaps about different things) feel anger and rage. I like seeing their apparently purposeless play, for it indicates to me that they have minds free enough from concern to do it. I am astonished, always, by the way they'll appear to know without knowing, to understand, anticipate, react, for it makes me feel as if I live in an indivisible world, that my belief that we're nearer in every respect than I could have imagined is correct, that we are, whatever we are, something of the same."
Profile Image for Paul.
2,116 reviews
November 4, 2020
Every day that I am out and about there are four birds that I am guaranteed to see, gulls, pigeons, magpies and crows. I am not a fan of the first two, but the latter two are always fascinating to watch, whatever they are doing. Just watching crows dancing in the wind is quite something. We have had the odd bird in the house before now, including a magpie recently, but I am not sure that I would want one in the home as a pet though.

Esther Woolfson is another who is fascinated by corvids, but her interest began when her daughter brought home a fledgeling rook that she had rescued. She nursed it back to health and Woolfson clips her feathers to stop her flying as they are concerned that she wouldn’t survive in the wild. She ends up staying as a family pet. They call her the faintly ridiculous name of Madame Chickeboumskaya. It was shortened to Chicken, which I thought was equally daft!

They had had a number of birds before this rook and she had doves outside her Aberdeen home too. But watching her moving around the house and interacting with everything, she didn’t expect her to be quite as intelligent as she was. She would cache food, especially items that she liked, but would think nothing of ignoring some that were presented to her. They construct a wire enclosure to allow her outside sometimes, but they need to be wary of the neighbour’s cat. Her daily rituals become much as part of the family as their own.

Further along the line, she acquires a magpie that had fallen from the nest before fledging and she calls it Spike. His wings are not clipped. He was very different in behaviour to Chicken and she found it fascinating comparing them to each other. Watching these two birds piques her interest in other corvids and she is lucky to see ravens nesting on a trip to Lochaber.

I did like this book, reading it feels like you are sitting at the kitchen table watching the antics of her two semi-wild birds happen around you. Her writing is gentle, beautiful and occasionally whimsical. These are sparklingly intelligent birds that can even mimic her voice and some of the phrases that she says. They are characters and love a routine. However, I am not sure about the morality of keeping a rook and a magpie inside. I feel these are wild birds and should be free. That said, she cares deeply for them, almost as much as her children and they would not have stood much of a chance if they hadn’t have been rescued. All through the book are beautiful drawings by Helen Macdonald of H is for Hawk fame. Might not be for everyone, but I thought it was worth reading.
Profile Image for Allison.
107 reviews6 followers
October 11, 2009
This book had a lot of good information, but in my opinion it was not well organized. The author moves randomly from personal experiences with her own bird, scientific bird information, and cultural perception without smooth transitions. I find all of these topics interesting, but there seemed to be a lack of flow or coherent story to pull everything together which lead me to rapidly get bored with the book. I set it down for probably 6 months before finally picking it up again recently and finishing it today. I wanted to really like the book because I am interested in crows as well as all birds, but I found it disappointing while having enough interesting information to justify finishing it.
Profile Image for K.J. Charles.
Author 57 books7,896 followers
March 9, 2021
I've been reading a lot of nature books recently and I am a fan of corvids, so I was looking forward to this one but it didn't work for me at all. Blend of personal memoir, talking about the many birds they kept, and natural history. I didn't find it engaging at all, possibly just didn't connect with the style, but DNF at 50%.
Profile Image for Natalie (CuriousReader).
500 reviews446 followers
August 4, 2017
Esther Woolfson’s Corvus is at once a chronicling of Woolfson’s way into a life with birds, as well as musings of a more general kind circling around the flying (and sometimes, non-flying) creature. The book opens with the chapter heading “Before birds” in which Woolfson describes how unexpected this life path was to her, how she came into a life as a birdie not really planning nor striving for it. It seems to have just kind of happened, and when it had - there was no going back. She talks of her changing attitudes along with discussing bigger questions, like the idea of “ownership” in regard to animals; what title to give herself as someone who keeps birds in their house, feeds them and takes care of them (bird keeper, bird owner, ethnologist). It’s this discussion just a few pages into the book that made me immediately feel in safe hands, because I feel quite the same in regards to dogs. I knew that I was in for a thoughtful approach to birds, human and bird relationship, and even in the larger sense human’s relationship with the nature around him/her.

The parts that focus on Woolfson’s life, the memoir parts of this book, are lovely and thoughtful. She describes how each bird has come into her life, how she went from one bird species to another, how she learned to care for each species and to see the differences as well as the similarities both between them and between birds and human. Woolfson has both the capability for beautiful writing and an eye for beauty; it's not just that the words chosen are lovely but that she draws connections and similarities between things that feel both true and unique.

“…tapping its beak incessantly against the window. The sound (which I’m used to now) was as ghosts might sound transporting their earthly chattels through empty rooms, creatures entombed within medieval walls, trying to get out; the inexplicably eerie beat of feather over glass, the frantic scratch and click of toenails on wood”

Woolfson’s writing is often beautiful, but more importantly is time and again sharp:
“…illuminating only the boundlessness of our own savegery, our feral cunning, our knowing less about our prey than about the methods of its destruction”

It is the critical eye to every discussion, every side of the topic that I most appreciated about this book. Woolfson questions our ideas of birds from the corvus family in myth and legend as bearers of bad news, the idea of corvus birds as mean or dangerous to cattle/humans (much like other natural history nonfiction I’ve read, it’s rarely the fault of one specific animal species that another is endangered but rather if any - human’s are most likely to blame). She discusses the idea of vermin with exactly the kind of vigor that for me was lacking in Robert Sullivan’s Rats. She talks of the concept of intelligence in relation to birds and deals with the obvious questions - are birds smart? which bird is the smartest? - but also questions the idea of intelligence as something measurable, thinks actively about what we are actually measuring and who is to judge the results; she also applies these difficulties with human intelligence, which true enough isn’t exactly as black-and-white as one would like to think.

There’s a chapter on bird song that is both informative and in many ways illuminating, the idea of a silent bird as a sign of something 'wrong', struck me as a very vivid image. She doesn’t just leave you with this image however as she later applies her own experience with a silent bird, a silent raven that is introduced in the last chapter, and what this silence means. I think my favorite chapter might be the chapter on flight after all. Woolfson opens the chapter by saying something like ‘everyone has dreamt of flying once in their life’ and at first I thought that was wrong, but the more I read about flying and feathers and wings the more I thought - there is few things as magical as that. I just love how Woolfson manages to be informative in all things avian, to relate to her own personal experiences, to see beauty and personal interest in both specific birds and generally of birds as a grouping of animals, while still being able to look critically both at other people’s views and ideas on birds as well as her own. She is introspective, thinks about her own actions and her own choices in adopting the birds she has had in her household through the years, analyses the right and wrong in it, the lost and the won. There’s just a humility in this book that I absolutely love and that I find both admirable and very important, as I feel this is what is often lacking for me in any discussion on animals aside from the human kind.

I think it pretty much goes without saying that I recommend this book to any bird lover, animal lover, or really if you, like me, like to look up at the sky sometimes and feel a cool breeze on your cheek, watch the stars shimmer, see the sky change in color, admire the changing hues in the leaves on the trees and their dance down to the ground. If you do, this book is for you.
Profile Image for Caren.
493 reviews102 followers
February 18, 2014
I so enjoyed this book, which recounts the love of the author for her birds, most especially a rook she calls "Chicken". She didn't keep birds until she was an adult, but she has not been without their close company since. She began with doves and her household has included, at different times, a cockatiel, a magpie, a crow, and her beloved rook. She keeps doves in an outdoor dovecote, but the other birds have shared her home. I should hasten to add, these are not caged birds. They do have their individual houses in which to roost at night, but they have free access to much of her home. She freely tells of cleaning up their messes and of allowing holes in the wall to fulfill the corvid need to cache, of putting up with the seasonal mess of nesting and of moulting, and her loving care of their needs. She has researched birds in great detail and shares her knowledge throughout this memoir.(She has also kept rabbits and rats, but they only enter into the story in a marginal way.) Tangential to the story of the birds, and of equal interest to me, was the sense of place. She lives in northern Scotland, in Aberdeen, which shes says is further north than Moscow, but whose climate is moderated by the sea. Still, it is mostly gray and cold, but also near pure, beautiful, windswept seascapes. It is also far enough north to see the aurora borealis. Her writing style is rich and evocative. I felt as though I could fall into her prose as into a world I could sense through her words. There are some beautiful illustrations done by Helen Macdonald throughout the book, which help the reader see the appearance of the birds the author describes. Here is an interview with the author:

Part 1:


Part 2:


I have recently found this amazing short video of a crow solving a problem:


Profile Image for Maria Longley.
960 reviews8 followers
January 29, 2015
Ah, a delightful book! Recounting their family's life with all sorts of birds this is an entertaining read that had me chuckling at several points and reading bits outloud to whoever was nearest. I really enjoyed learning more about the birds and their behaviour indoors. I must've missed out on the anti-corvid propaganda as I can't remember coming across it, but perhaps that's because I lived in a place called "crow swamp" as a child... I loved the sense of dignity afforded to the birds in the book. No mean feat in this experiment of interspecies cohabitation.
Profile Image for Paul Stevenson.
11 reviews
February 6, 2014
My main interaction with corvids has been to shoo them away from the bird feeder. I find, having read this book I am more tolerant and respectful of these birds. For that alone It was worth reading. The best parts were where she described her everyday life with the birds and the behaviour of the birds. Despite a background in neuroscience, I found the sections that went in to detail about the anatomy and the brain regions underlying certain corvid behaviours a little bit too deep and jarred with the easy flow of the rest of the book.
Profile Image for Melody.
2,623 reviews254 followers
August 4, 2009
An enjoyable and erudite memoir of Woolfson's life with birds. She does not confine her love, nor her writing, to the corvids- though they do make up the bulk of the book. Some of the gritty realities of sharing a space with very intelligent birds made me re-think my desire for a magpie- caching mincemeat between the pages of a book, f'rinstance, or hiding bits of squid atop the fridge. I learned a lot about both birds and Woolfson from this book, and I relished the journey.
Profile Image for sisterimapoet.
1,129 reviews17 followers
July 3, 2014
I love this - every bit of it. I want to find myself walking down an Aberdeen street and see Esther helping a shabby dark bird, I want to help her take it home. This was a joy because it wasn't simply trying to educate us about corvids, although it did that too. She effectively shared the very personal experience of having feathered family members. What a joy. Every time a magpie lands in our garden now I say 'hello' - I live in hope one might answer back!
Profile Image for Summer.
31 reviews
January 15, 2019
I am fascinated by corvids, particularly crows. This book is a delight, filled with warm recollections and detailed observations of the birds who share the author's life. Woolfson writes intelligently and engagingly, the memoir is interspersed with factual information as she tries to understand her avian companions better. Chicken, a rescued Rook is the central character, complex and at times unfathomable yet utterly fascinating and endearing. I loved this.
Profile Image for Rachel.
1,367 reviews26 followers
May 4, 2021
For many years, the author's has had corvids (and other birds) living in her house, and doves in an outbuilding. I could not do that--they poop, eat, and make all kinds of messes wherever they want. Hats off to her! The birds she keeps are not capable of living outdoors, and they enjoy the lifestyle she provides. Their intelligence, curiosity, and personalities come through, and it's fascinating. We also get a big dose of living in Scotland. Just...brrrrrr.

The personal stories are interspersed with more technical information about birds and corvids: evolution, reproductive habits, culture, their history with people, feathers, flying, etc., and vignettes of the author's life. All interesting, though I wanted less of that and more of the story of her bird companions and her interactions with them.

This book is exceptionally well written. It could be characterized as literary essays of the naturalist variety. The language is lyrical and evocative. If you like that kind of writing, it could be a 5-star book. Personally, I prefer matter-of-fact writing with simple sentence structure. So while I do admire her art of constructing a sentence, a paragraph, the whole book, it's not my preferred style for reading.
Profile Image for Kirsti.
2,456 reviews82 followers
April 17, 2018
Wile I enjoyed the focus of this book (the author's experiences with raising a rook, magpie and finally a crow) I have to say the writing left a lot to be desired. Perhaps it was my own English teachers crossing out commas and substituting them for full stops, but I cannot stand to see more than one in a sentence. Some of the sentences in this book ran on for half a page with eight or ten commas. The point of the sentence was lost long before they finished. I felt my eye twitching.

BUT the main point is that I did enjoy the story! I learned a great deal about all kinds of birds. I had to look up why Spike the magpie seemed so different to the birds I recognize in Australia as magpies, and then realized that ours aren't related to European magpies at all!

Be prepared for long scientific explanations, as well as extracts from other books. This isn't your average feel good animal book; it gets more serious than that.

Still, I enjoyed it despite my objections. Three stars.
Profile Image for Joanne Clarke Gunter.
267 reviews45 followers
December 31, 2019
An interesting and delightful book for bird lovers in general and corvid lovers in particular. Esther Woolfson writes of the birds she has taken into her home, parrots, a starling, a rook, a cockatiel, a magpie, a crow, and the many doves she created a shed home for in her backyard. Of all of them, she states that it has been the corvids, the rook, magpie, and crow, who altered forever her relationship to the rest of the world and her view of a hierarchy of form, intellect, and ability. These birds are so intelligent and inquisitive (also messy and noisy at times) and Woolfson's stories about them inform and delight the reader. A great read for my last book of 2019.
Profile Image for Cindy.
966 reviews
August 1, 2016
This book was somewhat along the lines of H is for Hawk. Living in Aberdeen, Scotland, Esther becomes the bird lady in town who learns how to feed and care for fledgling corvids. Most were not candidates to be released back into the wild, so her house became their sanctuary. Her assortment of birds and their personalities made for most interesting reading. Corvids, a group which includes rooks, ravens, crows and magpies, are smart and vocal birds. Esther's love for these creatures is evident throughout the book.

One aside. Perhaps this book suffered a bit from the timing of my reading. I had just finished Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, and thus was hyper-aware of punctuation and copy-editing. The author seemed inordinately fond of loooong sentences with lots of commas. I started counting words and commas when they drew my attention. Found many sentences over 80 words! The longest I found was 97 words, 18 commas, one semi-colon and (of course) a period.
Profile Image for Toni.
39 reviews1 follower
July 24, 2010
Woolfson is a lovely writer, adeptly pairing narrative of her experiences living with birds, including three corvids (a rook, a magpie, and a crow) with literary, scientific, and historic references to these often-maligned, intelligent, magnificent creatures. A worthwhile read if you enjoy witty, astute narrative and appreciate animals of any type.
31 reviews
January 31, 2019
Corvus seems to get mixed reviews. I think I understand why. Rather like Helen MacDonald's H is for Hawk it's part personal narrative and part popular science which don't always mix well. Or maybe it's only for bird enthusiasts? But I really enjoyed it. She's clearly very knowledgable and has a lovely fluent style of writing in many places.
Profile Image for Kris.
1,179 reviews12 followers
December 29, 2019
I was picking up a book on Southwestern birds at the library when I saw this on the same shelf. It looked interesting, and it was. The author intersperses her observations of the birds who live with her with scientific facts about birds.
Profile Image for Paula Kirman.
310 reviews6 followers
June 22, 2017
Corvus is part-memoir, part scientific information about birds in the corvid family: crows, ravens, rooks, magpies, and blue jays, mostly. The author is very knowledgable about birds and often rescues them, making them part of her family.
Profile Image for Hilary "Fox".
2,000 reviews53 followers
September 3, 2018
Corvus is a delightful book about the corvids, and other birds, that the author has known and loved. It is far less a memoir than it is a celebration of how she came to be Aberdeen's 'bird person', the learning curve of living with such intelligent and communicative animals, and a brief glance through the other side of telescope of how corvids have been misunderstood, persecuted, and otherwise turned into ill-omens that anyone who truly knows the bird would know is ridiculous. Corvids are very much themselves and nothing else, they are present in the moment and forgiving, but they have long memories and never hesitate to let anyone know how they feel about anything. They are wonderful, charismatic birds.

I enjoyed this book thoroughly. As I share my own home with a crow, I couldn't help but recognize the stories she told of her rook and magpie in my dear crow. The trials and difficulties, as much as the celebrations. All the celebrations. There is no love you can experience quite like the appreciation and contentment of an animal that is wild and in no way truly needs you. The bird has chosen you, and that is that. You've been graced by the intense bonding and friendship of a crow that values both above all else.

The bibliography in the back of the book is extensive, as are the chapters of Part III. The book bursts with interesting information and gives you all of the tools needed to learn more, and to sink deeper into the wonderful perspective loving corvids can give you of the world. Were corvids in any way rare, they would be celebrated and loved above all other birds. It's the curse of them being common that has made popular culture view them the way they do, I think. That and a misunderstanding of their habits and ways. Thankfully, books like this correct this.

Someday the corvid enthusiasts, undoubtedly, will win.
Profile Image for Juliet Wilson.
Author 16 books41 followers
January 21, 2012
Corvus is a memoir based on the author's relations with birds. Specifically corvids (crows, magpies and jays) and even more specifically the crows and magpies she has kept as pets. In each case the bird was found as a fledgling and abandoned by its parents (fledglings can often seem abandoned but usually the parents are going to come right out, so you should leave them be and trust nature in most cases). I found the style of this book a bit annoying and sometimes felt it could have done with a more thorough editing. However, having said that it is a delightful read. Full of the antics of Spike the magpie, Chicken the rook and Ziki the crow. They seem to have more or less free range of Woolfson's house (and make quite a mess!). They also have huge personalities and are very entertaining. Woolfson often uses incidents from the birds lives as a starting point to talk about elements of bird biology - so the book covers evolution, the structure of feathers, myths and folklore about crows and musings on the intelligence of birds. The reader is left with no doubt whatsoever that corvids are intelligent:

'We were standing by the kitchen stove discussing [Spike's future]....... Spike formed a triangle with us, part of the conversation, standing, as he had just learned to do, on the ears of the wooden rabbit on the mantlepiece, when he joined the discourse, gave forth his opinion, sealed the argument.

'Hello!"he said, very suddenly, loudly, with astonishing clarity. Han and I stared, gaped. Then even louder 'Spike!' He was pleased with his effort. 'Spike. Spikey. Hello! Spikey? SPIKE. His voice was a voice so human as to be shocking.'

A must read for bird lovers!

Profile Image for Roselle Angwin.
Author 18 books7 followers
October 1, 2018
I loved this book, and carried it everywhere – like a corvid?! –with me for the few days it took me to finish it (obviously in between other things).

The writing is beautiful, the birds are so well-observed, and though yes there is an occasional comma de trop, it didn't in any way obscure or diminish the text.

I know a bit about corvids (a jackdaw shared our house for a while when I was a child) and learned a great deal more.

I like the author's mix of biography, observation and science, and the book was also engaging on a personal level all the way through; at times moving.
Profile Image for Lisa.
80 reviews
August 15, 2012
You really gotta like birds to read this book. Luckily I do, and have owned various birds, so was amused at the stories by this owner of multiple birds. I've been slightly interested in corvids recently as well, so it was neat to read about her owning various magpies, crows, etc. BUT - the writing can get a little gratuitous at times, elaborating just a little too dramatically, leaving me wishing she'd get to a point. It is also pretty long, for being about a bird owners personal interactions with birds. But it also stresses how birds are so interesting because they are so different from us (makes me sad so many people fear them). It shows, too, how neat relationships can build with pets other than cats and dogs. I liked it, but definitely not for everyone.
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