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Gifts of the Crow

by John Marzluff and Tony Angell

(New Scientist)

HUMANS originally vilified crows and their relatives as harbingers of misfortune, and the modern view has not moved on much: winged vandals who steal windscreen wipers and gobble nestlings. Even their collective nouns sound nasty - a scold of jays, a conspiracy of ravens, a murder of crows.

But there is more to the family Corvidae than Hitchcock-inspiring horror antics, and in Gifts of the Crow, John Marzluff and Tony Angell show the birds' positive side. Crows that mourn, give gifts and tease all serve to show why the authors are passionate about their study subjects.

The 120-odd corvid species include some of the world's most intelligent birds, who use tools, show self-awareness when seeing their reflection, display advanced planning abilities and have clear capacities for abstract thought. In nature, this helps them recognise and exploit novel foods and conduct complex social lives. But when smart, hungry birds meet wasteful, profligate primates, things can get tense, and that's where bad reputations begin.

Combining academic observation with the collated reports of citizen scientists, Marzluff and Angell explore corvid capacities for, among other things, language, insight, play, emotion and awareness. What makes this enjoyable book work so well is the pairing of behavioural observations with cutting-edge knowledge of physiology and brain function. Not only are the authors out to dismiss the idea that crows are feathered delinquents whose birdbrains run winged automata, they also want to link crow behaviours with changes in cerebral neurochemistry.

The upshot is that while being introduced to the idea that crows windsurf - holding bits of curved bark in both feet and extending wings to ride, for minutes at a time, on a cliff-hitting updraft - you are also informed about what is going on with dopamine and opioid levels in the amygdala and hypothalamus. They also fill you in on how neuron-linkages are strengthened by feedback loops that help watchful young crows learn from the more experienced flock-members as they have fun.

There are a few tiny zoological errors once the authors stray from ornithology - fireflies are not flies but beetles, for example - but the wry yet enthusiastic style, reporting amazing behaviours and the neuronal and hormonal changes underlying cognition, results in a truly enlightening book. A challenge to our fully fledged cultural prejudices, Gifts of the Crow provides a new perspective on what is happening inside those sleek, black-feathered skulls.

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