Jan/Feb 2009  •   Reviews & Interviews

Corvus: A Life with Birds

Review by Ann Skea

Corvus: A Life with Birds.
Esther Woolfson.
Granta Publication. 2008. 337 pp.
ISBN: 978 1 84708 029 5.

Esther Woolfson shares her home with a rook named Chicken. Madam Chickeboumskaya (to give Chicken her full title) arrived unexpectedly in the family as an unfledged infant bird, beak agape, ready for food. Woolfson's first task was to discover what she ate, but the recommended diet of rodents, chicks, grasshoppers, beetles etc. was quickly re-interpreted as minced meat, eggs and chopped nuts. So, Woolfson and Chicken began a sixteen-year relationship which was still continuing when this book was written.

Chicken is not your usual caged, tamed bird. She has the run of most of the Woolfsons' home and she has her own "shanty-house" in Esther Woolfson's study, where she sleeps, bathes, roosts and preens and from which she can come and go as she wishes. Chicken was quick to establish a place for herself in the family hierarchy, acknowledging (sometimes) the "parental authority" of Esther and her husband David and maintaining a sort of sibling rivalry with their two daughters. The learning experiences of bird and humans in this shared life have been mutual and for the humans, says Woolfson, continually fascinating. Bird droppings on carpets and floors, bits of food cached under rugs, inside cushions and "posted" between the laths of a hole in the kitchen wall (a favourite place) are all accepted philosophically by Woolfson. She is clearly besotted with Chicken, as she has been over the years besotted with a magpie called Spike and other birds who have shared her life, although none as fully as Chicken.

Corvus, however, is not just a book about living with a rook. Woolfson has read widely and she is a thoughtful and intelligent observer. She records the behaviour of Chicken and other birds, and muses on the lives of birds in general and her birds in particular, their skills, their intelligence, their behaviour and their historical relationship with humankind. Many birds, but especially corvids like rooks, magpies, crows, jays, jackdaws and ravens have, over the centuries, been regarded as vermin, destroyers of food crops, and creatures of the devil. In 1424, for example, laws were passed in Scotland (where Woolfson and Chicken live) which required people to destroy these birds and their nests. And even today, the Wildlife and Countryside Act in England allows licensed landowners and occupiers to do the same. Superstition, too, has made corvids widely feared, and many myths, poems and stories confirm this. Yet, as Woolfson has discovered through her reading and her life with Chicken, Spike and, most recently, with a crow called Ziki, this evil reputation is largely unwarranted.

Corvus is part memoir, part musings, and part natural history. Woolfson's interests range widely, from specific bird behaviours like nesting, song, migration and flight, to more wide-ranging topics like Chinese poetry, music, folklore, myth and legend. Corvus is funny, fascinating, informative, loving and, just occasionally, a lesson in corvid science; and it is beautifully written by a woman whose own curiosity, intelligence and strength of character clearly draw her to birds which share these characteristics. We get to know Chicken quite well and to share some of the fascination she has for Woolfson. We get to know Spike, Ziki, a starling, a cockatiel, some parrots, two canaries and the inhabitants of the dove-house less well, but they have all played their part in genesis of this book. For someone who once had to ask a neighbour to remove a dead pigeon from her lawn because it scared her, Woolfson has come a long way, and Corvus is a very enjoyable account of some of the birds which have accompanied her on her journey.


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