Saturday, November 24, 2012

John Marzluff and Tony Angell's "Gifts of the Crow"

John Marzluff is Professor of Wildlife Science at the University of Washington. The author of four books and over one hundred scientific papers on various aspects of bird behavior, he is the recipient of the A. Brazier Howell, Board of Directors, and H.R. Painton awards from the Cooper Ornithological Society. Tony Angell has authored and/or illustrated a dozen award-winning books related to natural history. Their 2005 book is In the Company of Crows and Ravens.

Marzluff applied the “Page 99 Test” to their latest book, Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Gifts of the Crow captures several important themes of our book. First, it extolls an amazing gift that these birds—the corvid family including crows, ravens, magpies, and jays—possess. This is the gift of insight. Yes, some birds use insight, a full understanding of a problem and the steps needed to solve it, to survive in their worlds. The New Caledonia crows I discuss on p. 99 use insight to obtain out of reach food. This brings up the second theme—the reporting of scientific details to back up a claim about brainy birds. Many anecdotes exist about how smart crows are, and I recount many of these throughout the book, but I also review the science that now exists to back up many seemingly impossible observations. I try to bring this science to the reader in an easy to grasp way. Here, with respect to insight, I discuss an experiment done by New Zealand researchers: to obtain food crows had to pull up a string containing a small stick, use that stick to rake a larger stick out of a grill-fronted box, and finally use the large stick to scoop a piece of meat out of a long tube. That the crows did this, on average in minutes without missing a step in the sequence, demonstrates that they fully grasped the problem and the solution mentally. They clearly thought before acting, working out the necessary steps in their minds, rather than with errant physical flailing.

Page 99 intrigues in telling the reader how scientists investigate another being’s mental ability. It highlights one important “gift of the crow.” But it fails to represent the entire book. Missing are the many examples of other gifts: language, delinquency, frolic, passion, wrath, grief, risk taking, and awareness. Missing is a background discussion of bird brains that concludes the term “birdbrain” should now be considered a compliment, not an insult! Also missing are the elegant illustrations by Tony Angell of crow behavior. Page 99 introduces the crow, but it takes a book to fully describe the amazing advances science has made toward understanding the crow. This leads the reader to reconsider the crow, as a companion in our world that challenges and inspires. The true “gift of the crow” is the ability of these birds to take us beyond our technological and urban lifestyles and lead us into an exploration of nature that truly expands our minds.
Learn more about Gifts of the Crow at the publisher's website.

The Page 99 Test: In the Company of Crows and Ravens.

--Marshal Zeringue