Corvus: A Life With Birds, by Esther Woolfson

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. The world we share is broad, the boundaries and differences between us negligible, illusory.

Corvus: A Life With Birds

Rating: 4/5
Author: Esther Woolfson
Genre: non-fiction, nature writing
Publisher: Granta Books

Esther Woolfson offers a fascinating insight into the lives of birds -mainly corvids- in this book, part nature writing and part memoir.

Woolfson has particular trouble defining herself as a bird expert, bird-owner or bird-keeper, favoring a definition that leans toward that of a housemate instead. Her relationship with birds begins rather abruptly when given a chance to look after some doves. Until then, she admits not giving much thought to them. What follows after is how this unplanned encounter became a turning point that shifted her perception dramatically, giving way to sharing a life with rooks, magpies, cockatiels, and parrots under the same roof. Drawing parallels between the experiences of caring for pets and wild birds would not be entirely reasonable. Cats and dogs were bred for centuries to live alongside humans, while most birds remain outside the human scope, despite their proximity to us. Indeed, Woolfson emphasizes the wild nature of birds, their freedom to come and go wherever they please, often reflecting on the decisions that she has made regarding their upkeep. However, the birds that usually land on Woolfson’s footstep are those that she found impossible to reintroduce to the wild or whose prospects, considering the circumstances, weren’t especially promising.

Consequently, Woolfson inadvertently became the go-to person whenever a bird was misplaced, unwanted or damaged in her community. There is room for both joy and sorrow in these stories. In particular, her experience adopting parrots is heartbreaking, to say the least. As it is often the case with adopted pets, past experiences can also imprint the character of an older bird. In other words, a mistreated bird may show reluctance to contact with humans, be permanently afraid of certain things, or even emit sounds that would give away the time that they have spent in unsuitable places. Most of the time, owners give up these birds due to lack of knowledge, especially concerning their display of high-pitched voices.

Soon after the doves, they found Chicken (short for Madame Chickeboumskaya), a fledgling rook. Through Woolfson’s experiences with this young rook, we learn about the extraordinary characters of corvids, capable of showing affection, humor, anger, and playfulness. Beyond Chicken’s unique character traits, her study also covers other remarkable aspects of these species, such as their unusual sight, their intense drive to cache and its implications with memory and brain, how they experience seasons, the learning process behind bird-singing, etc.

If there’s anything to be taken away from this book, is how little we actually know about other living beings that surround us. Corvids, rats, doves, and squirrels are a common sight in urban emplacements, but how much do we know about them? Where do doves and corvids’ reputation as ‘flying vermin’ stem from? Can we tell a rook, a crow, a jackdaw and a raven apart? Woolfson argues that fear -both physical and psychological- may have a played a significant role in our perception of corvids. In response to our combined lack of awareness and apprehension, superstition and popular culture often fill in the blanks, either attributing human-like qualities to them or regarding them as intrinsically dumb or loathsome.

Woolfson’s prose is intimate and lyrical, mirroring her passion and admiration towards birds, which she manages to convey flawlessly. Corvus invites us to open our eyes and take a closer look at our surroundings, including those living beings that have miraculously managed to coexist with us. We may be surprised to learn that they have more to offer than what meets the eye.

As a side note, Helen Macdonald’s fans will be glad to know that she is in charge of the beautiful illustrations found in Corvus.


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