BENSOZIA/IDEAS

Thoughts, Ideas, Observations


John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell, In the Company of Crows and Ravens. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

Reviewed by John Bedell

I feel awe toward wolves, lions, tigers, buffalo, and the rest of the great and noble animals that we have driven near to extinction. I support all our efforts to keep them alive and set aside places for them to live. But the animals I like the best are the clever little creatures that thrive despite our best efforts to get rid of them, often moving into niches left vacant by the mighty beasts we have driven away: animals like coyotes, rats, and especially crows. Crows are wonderful beasts, fearless, adaptable, as smart as monkeys, as hard to get rid of as cockroaches. There is nothing like watching a family of crows drive a hawk away from their nest, seeing how they defeat superior strength and speed with their own brash cleverness. So when I read a glowing recommendation for In the Company of Crows and Ravens I rushed to the library and snatched up their copy.

Marzluff, a biologist, and Angell, a wildlife artist, know a great deal about crows, and when they relate their own experiences of crows or summarize the research of other biologists their book is fascinating. If you were ever confused about the relationships and distinctions between crows, ravens, rooks, and the rest of the corvid tribe, Marzluff and Angell will set you straight. There are 46 species in the genus Corvidae, all closely related. The larger species, which are scavengers and live mostly in northern forests, we tend to call ravens. The medium-sized birds, which are generalists, we tend to call crows. Smaller species are called jays or jackdaws. All of the larger species have much in common, including high intelligence and complicated relationships with the large predators they live with, such as humans.

The cleverness of these birds is legendary and still excites our admiration. Some ravens in Canada have learned to haul up the lines at ice fishing holes to steal the fish on the ends. New Caledonian crows fashion tools from leaves and twigs and use them to extract insects from logs, just as chimpanzees do. American crows that have been regularly hunted learn the range of a shotgun and sometimes taunt people from just beyond it. They also learn the boundaries of towns where hunting is forbidden and modify their behavior accordingly, acting boldly in town and more prudently outside it. They recognize themselves in mirrors and can even use mirrors to preen themselves. Ravens removing food from a kill site employ elaborate stratagems to put each other off, sometimes pretending to hide their bits of flesh in two or three false caches before finally depositing it. (It is hard to fool a raven, though, and the caches are usually raided anyway.) Crows learn to recognize people who give them trouble, like Marzluff, who regularly traps and bands birds and so has become known to all the crows on the University of Washington campus; they shadow him as he walks around, calling out warnings to their fellows. Crows in Japan have learned to put walnuts under the wheels of cars while they are stopped at traffic lights, and they return to recover the nutmeat the next time the light changes, when traffic stops again. Crows learn from each other, developing local and regional cultures. Corvids have versatile voices and seem to have fairly elaborate "languages." They modulate their alarm calls depending on the kind of danger and how immediate it appears. Marzluff thinks the University of Washington crows have a special alarm call just for him.

Ravens have a fascinating relationship with wolves. Ravens gather around every wolf kill in the north woods, snatching bits of flesh from under the wolves' noses. Even when there is no food around ravens will sometimes harass wolves, sneaking up and grabbing the tails of resting wolves or trying to peck their ears. This "play" may help young ravens learn how aggressive they can afford to be around an elk carcass. Many Indian groups believe that ravens lead both wolves and human hunters to wounded or injured animals; this behavior has not been documented by biologists, buy why not? If the much less intelligent honeyguide can lead people to bees, why can't ravens lead hunters to an elk with a broken leg? The interactions of wolves and ravens may also explain part of the reason wolves hunt in packs. Studies have shown that wolves do best for themselves, in energy terms, when they hunt in pairs; larger groups do only a little better at hunting, not enough to make up for the greater division of the spoils. But it takes a larger group of wolves to keep ravens from eating most of their catch.

One of the best sections of the book describes how corvid populations have changed in response to changes in human behavior. When we were hunters, we were mostly accompanied by ravens. Crows were probably rare in most of North America and Europe, living mainly along the coasts and major rivers. But crows have thrived and spread with agriculture, which remakes the landscape into something much more to their liking. Suburbs and cities are even more welcoming to crows. Ravens are forest birds and their range has generally contracted as agriculture and cities have spread. On the other hand ravens have recently colonized the Mojave Desert, where telephone poles provide them with nesting sites and roadkill a reliable source of food.

Despite all of these wonders, I have to say that I found In the Company of Crows and Ravens disappointing. It is disorganized, repetitive, and it places the writing is just plain bad. The section on the mythology of crows and ravens reads like a bunch of note cards strung together, and it only touches the surface of themes like the trickster myths and the role of ravens as messengers of death. I kept wishing that this book had been written by Berndt Heinrich, whose Ravens in Winter has long been one of my favorite biological books. If someone had given me an electronic draft of Marzluff and Angell's manuscript, in a week I could have cut out a quarter or so of the text and turned the rest into a much tighter and better structured book.

A few years ago I read another science book with the same strengths and the same problems, The Search for the Giant Squid by Richard Ellis. Squid are incredibly cool, but this was a tedious, disorganized, repetitive, long-winded book that I only finished because I had nothing else at hand to read instead. That no one bothered to turn either one of these manuscripts into a good book tells you something important about the publishing industry. Commercial nonfiction books are generally bought before they are written, on the basis of a prospectus and one or a couple of sample chapters. The effects are particularly obvious in The Search for the Giant Squid, in which all of the best stuff is in the first chapter. I suppose somebody at the publisher looks over the finished manuscript and thinks, well, this isn't so great, but quite likely it's the best we're going to get from this science nerd, and since it won't make that much difference to sales anyway we can't be bothered to fix the thing ourselves, so let's just bring it out in the spring list and see what happens.

Which is really too bad, because hiding somewhere inside In the Company of Crows and Ravens is a great book. With some creative, ruthless editing, and perhaps some input from a folklorist, that greatness could have been brought out, and we could have read a classic instead of this occasionally fascinating but disappointingly shapeless book.

January 10, 2008



From the 
Commonplace Book

In the course of his evolutionary promotions, his sublime march toward ultimate perfection, he has been a gambler, a low comedian, a dissolute priest, a fussy woman, a blackguard, a scoffer, a liar, a thief, a spy, an informer, a trading politician, a swindler, a professional hypocrite, a patriot for cash, a reformer, a lecturer, a lawyer, a conspirator, a rebel, a royalist, a democrat, a practicer and propagator of irreverence, a meddler, an intruder, a busybody, an infidel, and a wallower in sin for the mere love of it. The strange result, the incredible result, of this patient accumulation of all damnable traits is that he does not know what care is, he does not know what sorrow is, he does not know what remorse is, his life is one long, thundering ecstasy of happiness, and he will go to his death untroubled.

-- Mark Twain on crows


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