Back in Black

CorvusI think it is safe to say that every great story needs a great villain. If there isn’t someone in opposition, obstacles become way too easy for the protagonist to overcome and the story can get deadly dull. In The Art of Racing in the Rain, this year’s Big Read book, Enzo’s arch nemesis is clearly the common crow. As he states:

They sit in the trees and on the electric wires and on the roofs and they watch everything, the sinister little bastards. They cackle with a dark edge, like they’re mocking you, cawing constantly, they know where you are and when you’re in the house, they know where you are when you’re outside; they’re always waiting.

Now I’ve always had a certain sympathy for villains. In fact, I tend to make excuses for their somewhat questionable behavior: Grendel had issues with his mother; Macbeth was caught in an existential crisis; Darth Vader just wanted to rule the galaxy with his son. When it comes to crows, however, there are a gaggle of admirers who have a respect, bordering on admiration, for these often maligned creatures. Lest you think this is always motivated by some unrealistic new age feel-goodery, I present to you several excellent books that sing the praises of the crow based on the ice cold logic of science.

inthecompanyofcrowsWhen it comes to crow science, it won’t take you long to come across the name John M. Marzluff, who is on the faculty here at the University of Washington. He has teamed up with artist and writer Tony Angell to create two excellent books examining the complex lives of corvids and their often tempestuous interactions with humans. In the Company of Crows and Ravens is their first work together and Gifts of the Crow : How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans was just published last year.

giftsofthecrowMarzluff and Angell have spent years observing and studying crows and both books are chock full of impressive examples of the birds’ intelligence and cunning. One of my favorites includes the Carrion Crows in Sendai, Japan who purposefully place walnuts in the intersection while cars wait at a red light. Once the light turns green they get their nut cracked open without much effort. Interestingly enough, drivers began to purposefully aim for the walnuts in order to help the crows out in a case of cultural coevolution.

amurderofcrowsMarzluff has also conducted extensive studies demonstrating the way crows pass information, such as recognition of an individual, not only to each other but down through generations. This research, and much more, is detailed in the excellent DVD A Murder of Crows. If you can’t wait that long take a look at this snippet and watch which mask you wear the next time you are on the UW campus.

Fascination with crows is not limited to the intrepid duo from Washington, however. There are several other books in the library’s collection by dedicated naturalists that sing the praises of crows. Each is based on observations, studies and historical research and they are well worth reading:

Crow Planet : Essential Wisdom From the Urban Wilderness by Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Crows : Encounters With the Wise Guys of the Avian World by Candace Sherk Savage
Corvus : a Life With Birds by Esther Woolfson
Bird Brains: The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies, and Jays by Candace Savage

Now I’ll admit that crows have a few attributes that some might see as villainous:  they are black, travel in numbers, won’t pass up a meal of carrion, and can have a disturbing tendency to stare you down. Just remember that there are always extenuating circumstances

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