on June 11, 2012
With one significant reservation I really enjoyed this book. I love watching birds visiting the feeders in my garden, especially the magpies, and knew that the crow family included some of the most intelligent birds. I am also, as you will know if you have read my blog, very interested in animal intelligence, and what it can tell us about human intelligence. This book contains some wonderful accounts of, for example, the ability of crows to recognise individual people, and the account of ravens surfing the Colorado winds makes one wonder what other things they can get up to which have not yet been documented. Details are brought together of many accounts of apparently intelligent behaviour, together with descriptions of well planned experiments, which combine to make you realize how smart some birds really are. For those who want to explore further there are extra notes and an extensive bibliography. If you are interested in animal intelligence or bird behaviour this book is a "must read".
The problem is that really it is not one book but two. The part I have described is concerned with the behavioural evidence which demonstrates the intelligent behaviour in the crow family. It is written in an easy to read style - and the description on the dust cover confines itself to this part of the book, suggesting that the publishers were also aware of the problem and avoided mentioning something which could put some readers off. There is no doubt that if the book stopped at the point I described above I would be very happy to give a copy to an intelligent 12 year old bird watching enthusiast and suggest that they start looking for, and recording, the behaviour of the crows and magpies they see. It would encourage them to realise that everyone can make interesting and original scientific observations and possibly they would later decide to follow a career as a scientist.
However the book also deals in detail at the structure and biochemistry of the bird brain. Where this is covered in the appendix I have no problem with it, but the real problem is that in many places in the body of the book the subject suddenly switches, in mid page, to a technical description relating to the internal works of the brain and enzymes that are involved. This suddenly increases the "reading age" of the text from the young amateur scientist level to something approaching the graduate scientist level. The juxtaposition with field observations sometimes gives the impression that the "intelligent" behaviours that have just been described were directly followed up by detailed laboratory research on the same birds, which was not the case. On other occasions the technical discussion does not really help the argument as to whether the described behaviour was really intelligent or not. My opinion is that the book would have been more accessible to more people if this specialist material had been relegated to the Appendix, where it would still be available to those interested in understanding what is currently known about the internal workings of a bird's brain.
on July 25, 2012
I got this book for the Kindle, and wanted to read it myself. However, my spouse, who was not so much a bird person, took a liking to it, and loaded it to his Kindle first.
For the past two weeks as he's read this book, I get daily reports of how interesting the book is, how amazing these birds are, and what great anecdotes the author includes. The crows really do bring "gifts" to people they like. And they remember people as well.
The book goes into a bit of the brain structure and in depth about genetically as well. When I read it, I may skip over the more technical and scientific aspects of the work. But I am happy to report that my observations about bird behavior, their habits and likes and fears, dovetails with what this author presents based on science and experiments, not just a layman's observations. I'm very pleased to report that my spouse has dropped the expression "bird brain" to indicate someone without cognitive powers. Now in our household there are two bird lovers.
When I have a chance to read it, I'll update it from my non-scientific point of view. But, for all the good conversation it has already stimulated, it is worth reading.
on August 2, 2012
Gifts of the Crow will facinate anyone who reads the book. They are so smart it's no wonder they are called "the feathered apes!" The documented stories of their adventures will interest bird lovers. There is quite a bit of technical data in the book which could discourage some folks, but stay with it so you don't miss any of the great stories. I personally am conducting a "Crow feeding experiment" of my own and have received 2 gifts from the Crow clan. KLC
on October 7, 2012
Fantastic Book! On my second reading. So much info and just increases my love of these animals.Anyone who loves our feathered friends will surely enjoy and learn much from reading this.
on September 11, 2012
This is among the most complete of the many books about corvid intelligence written in the last couple of decades, but it is most innovative in its discussion of anecdotes. The majority of scientists have largely ignored these accounts, and a few have accepted them almost uncritically, but Gifts of the Crow by Marzluff and Angle goes farther than any other in systematically attempting to understand them. This book contains reports of crows that leave gifts to human benefactors, ring doorbells to obtain food, pass on hostilities to their children, call dogs by imitating human voices, hold funerals, zip open backpacks to get sandwiches, and so on.... Every one of the accounts might, taken in isolation, merit a skeptical response, but, taken together, they convincingly document the intellectual and emotional complexity of corvid behavior.
A simplistic approach might be to conclude that crows are just like human beings, but what the authors of this book do is far more helpful. They sort through dozens of anecdotes looking for patterns, as sort of approach traditionally identified more with the so-called "humanities" than with the sciences. The biggest lesson here is that one no longer needs to leave animals, in this case corvids, to the zoologists. The behavior of crows, and probably other animals, is sufficiently variable that it is possible for the interested layperson to develop unique relationships with them, and to make, or at least contribute to, new discoveries.
Full disclosure: I am a friend of the authors, and many crows as well.
This is a very strange book. It mixes the most unscientific anecdotal stories with seemingly endless descriptions of bird brain neurobiology into a mix that simply didn't work for me. One minute you are reading some charming anecdote about a raven and almost in mid-sentence you are dumped into long descriptions of neurotrasnmitters and brain structures.
If this book would have presented itself as stories about Crows and Ravens and other Corvids that should stimulate us to study them or wonder about them or marvel at their complex lives, then I wouldn't have had a problem with it. However the authors present anecdotes, some which stretch credulity to the limit, as science. They inform you that these anecdotes are reliable because "We interviewed the people who provided them." Well there you go.
Some or parts of some of these stories may be true. The fact that the authors interviewed the people who told them is irrelevant. Some of the speculation and interpretation the authors make of those stories may turn out to be correct. I am endlessly fascinated by these creatures and have been since I read "The Mind of the Raven". However I simply cannot stand the way these authors presented them and their arrogant assumptions thereof. This is psuedoscience pure and simple. If I hadn't read it I wouldn't have believed it.
I think I learned something about the behavior of these birds and it made me want to look for them around my City. I live in Houston, TX and the crow population here seems to have been seriously impacted by West Nile Virus. I simply don't see them around nearly as much as I used to.
In any case I don't recommend this book unless you want to pick out the anecdotes and take them for what they are - anecdotes. I got so tired of the credulous fawning acceptance of all of these stories by the authors I couldn't wait to finish the book. That's too bad because it is a fascinating subject that was simply mangled by these authors.
BIRKHEAD, Tim. Bird Sense: What It's Like to Be a Bird. Walker. 2012. 266 + xxii p, illus., bibliog., index. $25.
MARZLUFF, John, and ANGELL, Tony. Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans. Free Press. 2012. 289 + xiv p., illus., bibliog., index. $25.
HERZOG, Hal. Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals. HarperCollins. 2010. 226 + viii p. $25.99.
Good science writing is hard to beat. It's crisp, provides you with new insights into the physical world, and if the writer is good, opens up new worlds to you.
Two of these three books -by Birkhead and Marzluff and Angell-- satisfy me on this level. The third -by Herzog-- does not.
The two books on birds were part of a larger packet of books I bought from Amazon to satisfy my curiosity about these animals I can't ignore but know little about. I had read one book by Berndt Heinrich, a brilliant animal ethologist, on ravens so I bought three more (one on ravens, one -a classic--on bumblebees, and one autobiographical), which I have yet to read. These two books got caught up in the web of that buying spree.
I[m just as interested in our attitudes toward animals -why are some okay to eat and others not? why do some repulse us and others not at all?--so I was looking for books on that topic too, and Herzog's popped up, along with a book by one of my favorite quirky historians, R. W. Bulliett, Hunters, Herders and Hamburgers (2005).
This digression is simply to establish that I have a serious, though not scholarly, interest in the topics of animal capabilities and personalities and on how we perceive and relate to different kinds of animals.
Birhkead's book on bird senses, and Marzluff's and Angell's on the capabilities and behavior of crows both satisfy me. The information is provides succinctly, the writing is crisp, both Birkhead and Marzluff (Angell is the illustrator) convey their passion about their subjects, and what they write about is fascinating. Both include a good deal of hard scientific information, not surprising given how much their field of studies has been enriched by the use of modern brain mapping techniques, but the hard stuff doesn't overwhelm the lay read (me). Rather, it gives what they write elsewhere credibility. The illustrations in both books are superb, and highly informative, a model of animal science illustrating. Birkhead especially is generous in detailing the contributions of past and other present day scientists in advancing knowledge in his field. Neither author claims too much for what is currently known. And if I haven't said it before, the prose in both of these books is admirably crisp.
I bought the book by Hal Herzog because (1) I found the topic fascinating and (2) both Stephen Pinker and Irene Pepperberg, scientists whose books I have enjoyed, praised it. I'll be blunt. I didn't like the book. It's fuzzy where it should be hard, and it ends its stories just about the point I want to follow up on them. In short, although the book contains a great deal of interesting though I am not sure conclusive information on its subject, it's too anecdotal and much too cutesy for my taste. I'm sure a good book could be written on the subject of human tastes for animals but when it's written, it needs to be crisp in style, skeptical in analyzing, and much more compact than this rambling and sporadically entertaining account is.
on March 25, 2013
As someone who has what I thought was an odd appreciation and affection for Crows, I was delighted to read that I am not alone. :)
Good information, good stories. I am very glad that I selected it.
on August 7, 2013
The author is a top-notch researcher. This book is a bit more in depth and technical about the working of a "birds brain" than I was looking for. Lots of detail if that is what you want regarding the biology of the brain (for birds and humans). I was looking for descriptions of crow behaviors and communication patterns which is probably the content of another book Dr. Marzluff has written.
on July 28, 2012
Again, Marzluff and Angell's careful documentation of corvid anecdotes provides even those of us who study these fascinating birds with more material to ponder. While the occasional break into scientific jargon might be off-putting to casual readers, the "corvidologist" will find it intriguing, and the presentation might make the reader wonder how his/her own responses might look if broken down into endorphins and vasotocin/mesotocin levels. "Gifts of the Crow" gets five caws from this reviewer!