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Bird Brains: The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies, and Jays

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Birds have long been viewed as the archetypal featherbrains—beautiful but dumb. But according to naturalist Candace Savage, “bird brain,” as a pejorative expression, should be rendered obsolete by new research on the family of corvids: crows and their close relations. The ancients who regarded these remarkable birds as oracles, bringers of wisdom, or agents of vengeance wer Birds have long been viewed as the archetypal featherbrains—beautiful but dumb. But according to naturalist Candace Savage, “bird brain,” as a pejorative expression, should be rendered obsolete by new research on the family of corvids: crows and their close relations. The ancients who regarded these remarkable birds as oracles, bringers of wisdom, or agents of vengeance were on the right track, for corvids appear to have powers of abstraction, memory, and creativity that put them on a par with many mammals, even higher primates. Bird Brains presents these bright, brassy, and surprisingly colorful birds in a remarkable collection of full-color, close-up photographs by some two dozen of the world’s best wildlife photographers. Savage’s lively, authoritative text describes the life and behavior of sixteen representative corvid species that inhabit North America and Europe. Drawing on recent research, she describes birds that recognize each other as individuals, call one another by “name,” remember and relocate thousands of hidden food caches, engage in true teamwork and purposeful play, and generally exhibit an extraordinary degree of sophistication.


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Birds have long been viewed as the archetypal featherbrains—beautiful but dumb. But according to naturalist Candace Savage, “bird brain,” as a pejorative expression, should be rendered obsolete by new research on the family of corvids: crows and their close relations. The ancients who regarded these remarkable birds as oracles, bringers of wisdom, or agents of vengeance wer Birds have long been viewed as the archetypal featherbrains—beautiful but dumb. But according to naturalist Candace Savage, “bird brain,” as a pejorative expression, should be rendered obsolete by new research on the family of corvids: crows and their close relations. The ancients who regarded these remarkable birds as oracles, bringers of wisdom, or agents of vengeance were on the right track, for corvids appear to have powers of abstraction, memory, and creativity that put them on a par with many mammals, even higher primates. Bird Brains presents these bright, brassy, and surprisingly colorful birds in a remarkable collection of full-color, close-up photographs by some two dozen of the world’s best wildlife photographers. Savage’s lively, authoritative text describes the life and behavior of sixteen representative corvid species that inhabit North America and Europe. Drawing on recent research, she describes birds that recognize each other as individuals, call one another by “name,” remember and relocate thousands of hidden food caches, engage in true teamwork and purposeful play, and generally exhibit an extraordinary degree of sophistication.

30 review for Bird Brains: The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies, and Jays

  1. 4 out of 5

    carol.

    Bird-brain is by no means an insult. When I happened upon this book at the library, I was delighted by the potential mix of one of my passions, animal intelligence, and positive PR for a widely maligned species. Alas, then, when I discovered this book was heavy on the pictures, light on the intelligence studies--none of the three studies most widely publicized studies I knew of concerning crow intelligence were mentioned. Despite pretensions at erudition, this is clearly a coffee-table book. Bird Bird-brain is by no means an insult. When I happened upon this book at the library, I was delighted by the potential mix of one of my passions, animal intelligence, and positive PR for a widely maligned species. Alas, then, when I discovered this book was heavy on the pictures, light on the intelligence studies--none of the three studies most widely publicized studies I knew of concerning crow intelligence were mentioned. Despite pretensions at erudition, this is clearly a coffee-table book. Bird Brains contains beautiful pictures, lovely quotes, bits of folklore and mythology. Oh yes, and alliterative cleverness in the form of the title and table of contents ('Brainy Birds,' 'Beginnings,' 'Belonging,' 'Bread and Butter Issues'). Oy. Organization is jumbled, with full-page pictures and sidebar quotes breaking up the writing almost every other page. Photos clearly show the Sierra Club publishing heritage--the photos are gorgeous and detailed, and without doubt calendar-worthy. Overall, however, it is heavier on the gloss than information. Much of the material is general biology related, educating the reader about nesting, growth, and foraging. Studies mentioned are usually in context of 'natural' behavior, or birds reacting and adapting to environmental changes such as selection of nesting sites by experienced birds. Ideally, it would have contained more science about 'intelligence' and less description and analysis of 'natural' behaviors. Want to know just how smart crows and corvids are? Check out these studies: The first comes from a fortunate accident in the midst of studying crow selection of tools. Tool-use was originally considered one of the distinguishing characteristics of human intelligence, but when we discovered other species use objects/tools, we added the caveat of tool creation. A pair of crows were given access to two tools, one wire with a hook at the end and the other a straight wire. Their favorite treat was then hidden beneath a bell-like container with a loop at the top. The male used the hooked wire, obtained his treat, and being male, flew off with his tool. The female, left frustrated without a useable tool, took the straight wire and made a hook at the end. Here was an example of a crow fashioning a tool out of a material she had never used-–she had only used pipecleaners over a year before this study. Video of the crow using a hooked wire to access treats: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=efcIsv... Crows seem to have a knack for thwarting researchers’ aims. Once again, study innovation resulted from accidental findings. As part of a 5 year study, scientists trapped and banded baby crows in the area. Every year the researchers came back, they found themselves dive-bombed and attacked by a flock of angry crows, even ones that had nothing to do with the banding. Wondering at how unfamiliar crows learned that the researchers were 'dangerous' turned into another study examining facial recognition. This time researchers did the banding wearing masks--a caveman and a Dick Cheney mask (the primary researcher is not without humor). Crows reacted more strongly when re-exposed to the caveman mask, the one used for the banding/crownapping behavior. Then, when new people wore the masks while walking in the area, not even attempting threatening behavior, the crows responded with warning cries and mobbing behavior. The author theorizes the crows are teaching other crows in their flocks, and long-term studies seem to bear it out–Marzluff reports 47 of 53 crows seen reacted to him on a recent walk when he wore one of the banding masks. The final interesting study has been surrounded by some controversy, and research clouded by anecdotal reports. Crows are one of at least three avian species that know how to break open food sources by dropping them from heights. Urban stories exist of them using cars as part of the process, even garnering a mention in an Attenborough production: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BGPGkn... However, a study analyzing reports of such behavior in California do not prove reliance on cars, only use of the 'dropping' method. It is worth noting, however, that apparently they vary heights based on food type, a highly complex and learned behavior. Upshot? Looking for a sophisticated discussion of corvid intelligence, this likely would not be your best bet. However, it is a decent introduction to crow behavior that would appeal to the highly visual reader. *************************************** For my science-geek readers, the original article on crows and tool use is at http://www.sciencemag.org/content/297... The free NYT article on facial recognition: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/26/sci... The scholarly article on facial recognition: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/... The article on nut-dropping: http://beheco.oxfordjournals.org/cont...

  2. 4 out of 5

    GoldGato

    This is one of the very good books I've ever read about birds, specifically corvids. I had gone looking for something to learn about them after a neighbour had walked by one day and asked if I had seen her pet crow. This simply amazed me, but she was serious. He occasionally would fly away when she took him and the family dog for a walk. Well, a few days later, a crow made itself known in the street, caw-cawing in the big tree on the corner. The owner had heard and came running over to see and y This is one of the very good books I've ever read about birds, specifically corvids. I had gone looking for something to learn about them after a neighbour had walked by one day and asked if I had seen her pet crow. This simply amazed me, but she was serious. He occasionally would fly away when she took him and the family dog for a walk. Well, a few days later, a crow made itself known in the street, caw-cawing in the big tree on the corner. The owner had heard and came running over to see and yes, it was her crow. That amazing crow was letting her know that his little adventure was over and he was waiting for her. She went back to her home, got the dog and came back. It turns out the reason she got the dog was because on the dog's back was a special perch, part of a pack the dog was carrying (the canine was a Newfoundland and could have carried me). That darn crow immediately flew down and landed on the perch, ready to have his chauffeur (dog) and servant (woman) take him home. I guess it was beneath him to fly home, he had to summon them. As she walked past, the owner told me that she had also trained him to use the lavatory. My mind was blown. So, I found this book and read it from cover to cover fairly quickly. It's informative and laid out a journey of corvid-ness that I never knew existed. Anyone who feels that we humans are the superior beings should really spend time with a crow or a raven or a magpie or a jay. Book Season = Autumn (raven moons)

  3. 5 out of 5

    R K

    Nice book. Great introduction to the Corvidae family. The pictures, however, were stunning! I'm not sure if the author was the one who took them but they are so beautiful, I was tempted to hang them in my room, but alas, it's a library book..... Nice book. Great introduction to the Corvidae family. The pictures, however, were stunning! I'm not sure if the author was the one who took them but they are so beautiful, I was tempted to hang them in my room, but alas, it's a library book.....

  4. 4 out of 5

    Ladiibbug

    Non-Fiction Corvidae, or corvids, is the scientific name for a group of birds which includes ravens, crows, jays, magpies, jackdaws, and rooks. When this book was published in 1995, "there were 103 species of these crow-like birds in the world, though only forty of them qualify as "true crows" (p. 4). With 122 pages total, including a significant number of superb photographs of various corvids, this is a quick read and does a fine job of packing lots of facts into its pages. The photos of the vari Non-Fiction Corvidae, or corvids, is the scientific name for a group of birds which includes ravens, crows, jays, magpies, jackdaws, and rooks. When this book was published in 1995, "there were 103 species of these crow-like birds in the world, though only forty of them qualify as "true crows" (p. 4). With 122 pages total, including a significant number of superb photographs of various corvids, this is a quick read and does a fine job of packing lots of facts into its pages. The photos of the various species in full color are some of the finest bird photos I've ever seen. The information obtained through the studies and/or books of others is generously credited. This was my first look at a photo of a green jay (bright blue cap, black neck, yellow upper chest gradually turning to light green, back and wings a colorful medium green). The gray jay, aka Canada jay, whisky-jack, meat-bird, moose-bird and camp-robber, is another new to me species of corvid. Being an avid backyard bird lover with feeders and birdbaths year-round, enjoying the the variety of birds in my yard is a big part of my life. The smooth headed Scrub Jay is my favorite. I've spent 20+ years observing these smart and entertaining birds, watched the process of the parents gathering materials each spring for a nest, watching the male gather food to take to the mother in the nest, the first sounds of the baby birds, and the early attempts escorting their goofy and uncoordinated babies to the safe places to find food and water. Corvids are considered to be the most intelligent family of birds. I didn't know this 20 years ago living in Southern California when I put up my first bird bath and began feeding birds. The scrub jays were comical and fascinated me. One day instead of putting peanuts on the fence rail as usual, I threw them on top of a large shed the jays flew over. He/she found them on the first "fly in". I began changing the peanut location every day when the birds were not around and loved watching them do fly-overs and hunt for them. I even put holes in peanut shells, strung them together and hung them from a branch, so the bird would have to grab the peanut while he/she was in the air. They seemed to like the little challenges, and I developed a deep affection for them. For the most avid corvid fan, I would highly recommend Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds by Bernd Heinrich.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jeanette (Ms. Feisty)

    A must-read for anyone interested in birds, including younger folk. Easy to read but very informative. I really liked this author's more recent book on crows, so I knew I had to read this one too. She has distilled information from many different sources into a very enjoyable, easily understood book. This is a great overview of various aspects of life as a member of the crow (Corvidae) family. It's full of beautiful full color photos from around the world. Some of these birds are so delicate and A must-read for anyone interested in birds, including younger folk. Easy to read but very informative. I really liked this author's more recent book on crows, so I knew I had to read this one too. She has distilled information from many different sources into a very enjoyable, easily understood book. This is a great overview of various aspects of life as a member of the crow (Corvidae) family. It's full of beautiful full color photos from around the world. Some of these birds are so delicate and exquisitely colored that you'd never think they're related to crows and ravens, but they are. And they have similar behaviors and intelligence levels as well. I especially enjoyed the part about the birds that use teamwork to steal food from other animals. Also the brief discussion about their capacity for altruism within their own species.

  6. 5 out of 5

    David

    I'm quite partial to crows and ravens. Perhaps it's that I'm consistently sorted into Ravenclaw. Or that my Scots clan has for their war banner a raven in flight. After encountering a description of this writer's other work, this was what I could find by her in our local library. It wasn't quite what I expected. It's got pictures. Lots of pictures, being that it's a coffee table book and all. Honestly, though, that's the best format for this kind of book. Lovely images of most of the world's corvi I'm quite partial to crows and ravens. Perhaps it's that I'm consistently sorted into Ravenclaw. Or that my Scots clan has for their war banner a raven in flight. After encountering a description of this writer's other work, this was what I could find by her in our local library. It wasn't quite what I expected. It's got pictures. Lots of pictures, being that it's a coffee table book and all. Honestly, though, that's the best format for this kind of book. Lovely images of most of the world's corvids, coupled with Savage's carefully researched and substantive descriptions of their unique intelligence and social natures. Fascinating and thought provoking.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Rick

    Pretty Bird Picture Book for Bird Brains The book was over written, reminding me of students padding book reports with sentences to achieve a required length of an assignment. It relies heavily on conjecture and offers little if any conviction. Take this quotation found near the end of the book which starts with a firm grip of the obvious, "Over the millennia, each species of corvid has developed the mental abilities it needed to meet life's challenges”, and continues with the author’s unsupporte Pretty Bird Picture Book for Bird Brains The book was over written, reminding me of students padding book reports with sentences to achieve a required length of an assignment. It relies heavily on conjecture and offers little if any conviction. Take this quotation found near the end of the book which starts with a firm grip of the obvious, "Over the millennia, each species of corvid has developed the mental abilities it needed to meet life's challenges”, and continues with the author’s unsupported supposition, “How these abilities compare from species to species -- and how the intelligence of corvids compares with that of other birds -- remains to be seen and finishes with little conviction to support her own premise, “Perhaps all birds are smarter than we are used to thinking. In the end, being called a bird brain may be a compliment.” Here is my interpretation of the above quotations and the premise of this book. Species adapt to survive. How their abilities and intelligence compare won’t be covered here, but they might be smarter than we think, so don’t worry about being labeled a bird brain. As the cover would suggest, I thought the book was an investigation into the brains of birds and their intelligence, but in large part the book is about the author’s supposition about the cleverness of birds, peppered with observations from other writers and investigators. It is a picture book that sat on my shelf for over ten years (I discovered a bookmark a quarter of the way in, where I had abandoned it all those years ago), and I can now relinquish this awkwardly sized book to the virtual “have read” shelf, and make space for something more favorable on my corporeal bookshelf.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Orion

    This is a wonderful summary of the latest findings and theories on Corvidae behavior and intelligence. I read the book because I wanted to find out why crows acted the way they do and have come away with a deep appreciation for this wonderful family of birds. In addition to the fabulous text, the book is filled with large, gorgeous pictures that are awesome. This must be read by anyone interested in birds.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Megan

    A quick read on the studies and observations on corvids. Easy to read through because it contains LOTS of pictures. If you're like me and a little bird obsessed (and capable of researching on your own) you probably already know everything this book is going to say, or almost. I'd still say it's worth reading through. I picked up a few things of interest. * This book is written from a heavy evolutionary slant. It also hints at fallacies in the Bible. A quick read on the studies and observations on corvids. Easy to read through because it contains LOTS of pictures. If you're like me and a little bird obsessed (and capable of researching on your own) you probably already know everything this book is going to say, or almost. I'd still say it's worth reading through. I picked up a few things of interest. * This book is written from a heavy evolutionary slant. It also hints at fallacies in the Bible.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Cameron Murray

    I love jays, magpies, crows and ravens, and I loved this book. Beautiful photographs and fun, playful and informative. Definitely recommend for any birder or corvid admirer.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

    Beautiful photos of the corvidae family. This book is made for the coffee table. From a biology perspective it probably needs a little updating, but it's a good summary of bird behavior. Beautiful photos of the corvidae family. This book is made for the coffee table. From a biology perspective it probably needs a little updating, but it's a good summary of bird behavior.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Dominique

    Candace Savage has written two books about crows, and I cannot say have been really impressed with either book. I found this specific book to have a lot of filler without a lot of substance. This book does have a lot of nice pictures. If you actually want to learn something about crows, check out a book called In the Company of Crows and Ravens.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Jeff Cliff

    Well sourced - the bibliography is surprisingly large given how much of a picturebook this turned out to be. What this is not: a deep dive into bird intelligence. What you will learn, however, is some things about bird intelligence. About corvids. Dozens of little stories about birds, suitable for those people who are obsessed enough to desire to know such stories. But this book is clearly a polemic: it is an attempt to show, to the lay audience that birds are intelligent, and not in some kind of Well sourced - the bibliography is surprisingly large given how much of a picturebook this turned out to be. What this is not: a deep dive into bird intelligence. What you will learn, however, is some things about bird intelligence. About corvids. Dozens of little stories about birds, suitable for those people who are obsessed enough to desire to know such stories. But this book is clearly a polemic: it is an attempt to show, to the lay audience that birds are intelligent, and not in some kind of react-to-your-environment reflex sort of way. The argument is compelling. Two random facts, of many in this book: 1) "In the much-studied pinyon jay, ....the males, in contrast, mate with the heaviest females they can attract." Somehow I'm surprised this has never come up in my life. 2) Human beings spend *billions* of dollars, willingly, to satisfy and create comfort for birds.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Marija

    A quick read aimed at the general public with the goal of introducing corvids and inspiring curiosity about these birds. It touches upon most ‘corvid themes’ typically discussed in books about them, focusing on intelligence and behaviour. About half the book = large photos of birds, which is an enjoyable feature. I did not enjoy the writing style, the non-intuitive organisation of text, and the occasional autocorrect. Overall, it’s too general to my taste. That said, I did end up learning some n A quick read aimed at the general public with the goal of introducing corvids and inspiring curiosity about these birds. It touches upon most ‘corvid themes’ typically discussed in books about them, focusing on intelligence and behaviour. About half the book = large photos of birds, which is an enjoyable feature. I did not enjoy the writing style, the non-intuitive organisation of text, and the occasional autocorrect. Overall, it’s too general to my taste. That said, I did end up learning some new things, too. Could make a great gift for someone who doesn’t know anything about corvids, but might enjoy learning about them. In my opinion, it would work particularly well as a gift for a younger reader.

  15. 5 out of 5

    David Miller

    A delightful exploration of the world of some very under-appreciated birds, which sparks plenty of fascinating questions about their inner lives and mental capabilities. The photographs are lovely, the anecdotes even more so. I also enjoyed the references to corvids of mythology and literature, and I was pleased to see the author name the particular indigenous groups that were the source of one tale about the Raven. The science of animal intelligence is wonderful, and puts our own intellectual a A delightful exploration of the world of some very under-appreciated birds, which sparks plenty of fascinating questions about their inner lives and mental capabilities. The photographs are lovely, the anecdotes even more so. I also enjoyed the references to corvids of mythology and literature, and I was pleased to see the author name the particular indigenous groups that were the source of one tale about the Raven. The science of animal intelligence is wonderful, and puts our own intellectual achievements into context.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Brice Fuqua

    This book summarizes the research on the intelligence of the Corvadie family. Long considered among the most intelligent of birds, the corvadids show surprising problem solving skills as well as a remarkable memory and ability to learn. The main appeal; of this book, though, is the many, beautiful, full-color photographs.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Phair

    Large format with gorgeous photos and limited text but still informative. Especially liked the chart showing major corvid species and their world distribution. The studies referenced were largely Eurocentric but featured a good variety of examples of reasoning, intelligence, memory, etc.. I find the corvids endlessly fascinating.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Ruth Gates

    Enjoyed this book as I read it at the cottage. This is a wonderful summary of the latest findings and theories on Corvidae behaviour and intelligence. I read the book because I wanted to find out why crows acted the way they do and have come away with a deep appreciation for this wonderful family of birds.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Connie D

    Birds, especially corvids, fascinate me, as do brains, so this was a great topic for me, especially with the lovely photos. This is a very readable report of scientific studies that show how corvids think, use tools, communicate, remember, etc. The main con about this book is that is was relatively short. I'd love to hear more! Birds, especially corvids, fascinate me, as do brains, so this was a great topic for me, especially with the lovely photos. This is a very readable report of scientific studies that show how corvids think, use tools, communicate, remember, etc. The main con about this book is that is was relatively short. I'd love to hear more!

  20. 4 out of 5

    Chrissy

    A coffee-table book I mistakenly ordered. Pictures were attractive, some stories about the family new to me. All in all, 25.00 for the pretty factor maybe, but big, new discovery? Meh. Not so much. Didn't learn anything new. A coffee-table book I mistakenly ordered. Pictures were attractive, some stories about the family new to me. All in all, 25.00 for the pretty factor maybe, but big, new discovery? Meh. Not so much. Didn't learn anything new.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Nekosensei

    Checked this out of the library on a whim. I enjoyed the context, but sooo many copy editing errors.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Laura Conklin

    I enjoyed reading about research done regarding corvid behavior. The photographs are beautiful!

  23. 5 out of 5

    Ariel Cummins

    Fast read with tons of photographs.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Landsman

    Nice short book with interesting facts and with great photos. Sooooo many typos though, pretty unbelievable that it is apparently a second edition!!

  25. 5 out of 5

    Dianne

    The pictures in this book are amazing. I like these big, ungainly birds. Clever, resourceful and goofy.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Mary

    One of my very favorite books!

  27. 4 out of 5

    Linda

    Fascinating book about crows, ravens, magpies, jays. they are SO SMART!!! Very interesting and beautiful pictures and photographs.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Kat

    A decent primer on Corvids. Nothing in depth or reveltory.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    DNF far too similar to Marzluff, mostly anecdotal listicles

  30. 5 out of 5

    Karen

    Quick interesting read about crows and similar birds. A lot of information about their intelligence with lots of great pictures.

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