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Crows: Encounters with the Wise Guys

by Candace Savage

With her new book, Crows, Saskatoon-based nature writer and historian Candace Savage turns her attention again to the world of crows and their corvine cousins (including magpies, jackdaws, and ravens). It’s territory she has mined before – in her bestselling 1995 volume, Bird Brains — but this is an enthralling subject, well-deserving a second look a decade later.

Although Crows is decidedly more casual in approach than the earlier book, the easy accessibility conceals a wealth of scientific and naturalistic information. Savage is clearly a fan of the black bird and its relations, and her admiration shows. She takes great delight in documenting crows as builders and users of tools, the birds’ uncanny awareness of the human world, and their complex social structures, all informed by interviews with experts who clearly share her admiration.

Threaded through the scientific studies and anecdotal accounts are corvine folk-tales and mythology that range from the ravens Hugin and Munin, who served as Odin’s eyes in Norse mythology, to the trickster raven of traditional Tlingit stories in Alaska, to Zora Neale Hurston’s The Crow Dance.

While imbuing an animal subject with human characteristics is usually (and rightfully) verboten in serious nature writing, the temptation must have been overwhelming for Savage. Thankfully, in examining animals as mischievous and intelligent as crows (whose brain-to-body ratio is rivalled only by higher primates and human beings), a few well-chosen anthropomorphisms (like mischievousness) are not only permissible, but practically inevitable.

In fact, the combination of Savage’s accessibility, the sheer depth of her research, the slight anthropomorphism, and the sparkling quality of her writing do more than explain the world of the corvine family. There’s a startling intimacy to this literary encounter, from which most readers are likely to emerge well educated, informed, and curiously changed. That’s a keen accomplishment for little more than 100 pages.