Corvus: A Life with Birds

Corvus: A Life With Birds - Esther Woolfson

Birds have arrived, the chosen and the unwanted, the damaged, the accidentally displaced from nests. They have stayed, or gone, leaving, all of them, their own determined avian imprint, entirely unrelated to size or species, and with each has been established an enduring sense of connection, one that extends far, towards a world, a life, a society, of which once I knew nothing at all.

Of all of them, it has been the corvids, the rook, magpie and crow, who have altered for ever my relationship to the rest of the world, altered my view of a hierarchy of form, intellect, ability; my concept of time.


I have no idea how I found this book, but since it tells of the author's life with a rescue rook named Chicken and both live only a few minutes across the city, I had to read this.

I like ravens, crows, rooks, magpies, etc. They have always seemed to me to combine an underestimated intelligence with and equally under-appreciated sense of quirky, whimsical fun. 


Anyway, Corvus tells the story of how the author has come to adopt doves, rats, parrots, Chicken (the rook), Spike (a magpie), and Ziki (another crow). 


The main character - if that is fair to say - was Chicken.

We named her, a choice probably now too prosaic, too frivolous for the dignity she’s attained. It was derived from a piece in the edition of the New Yorker I was reading at the time, mention of a drag artist called, I think, Madame Chickeboumskaya. Thus, she is Chicken.


Woolfson uses her stories of Chicken to tell of the various things she's learned about rescuing birds, and the differences between the different birds that she has encountered. Her love for living beings, irrespective of species, is thought-provoking, and her knowledge of the local history of Aberdeen, the Shire, and the different birds in the area, is fascinating. Her biggest love are the members of the crow family and the book imparts many a fact about them by anecdote:

Not only do they recognise one another, corvids can recognise individual humans, and there are countless stories of people involved in crow research of one sort or another being singled out from among large, busy crowds to be personally, individually subjected to harassment, a kind of revenge, no doubt, for what crows appear to regard as unwarranted scientific attention.

But Woolfson also injects some humour into the book. As she's in an unusual situation, she also recounts several encounters with neighbours, tradesmen, friends and family who, over the years, have had to get used to feathered family members.

It didn’t take long for us to realise that our love of corvids was not universal. The girls’ friends in particular regarded us as an outpost of the Addams family, intriguing, strange, potentially sinister. The only grounds for their view (as far as I know) was the presence of Chicken.

As I mentioned, the author lives in Aberdeen. Many of her descriptions of the city are very familiar to me. Yet, I also loved learning new things about those locations. I recently had cause to spend time in the vicinity of Aberdeen Grammar School, a rather impressive building of Baronial style. I have often wondered about the reason for Byron's statue in the front of the building, but never enough to look it up.


Woolfson came to my rescue there - and of course adds some crow related information, too:

I pass a statue of Byron every day. For a brief time in 1794, he attended Aberdeen Grammar School when he was living here with his mother. Despite the brevity of his sojourn, his statue stands in bronze-robed solemnity and magnificence in front of the school’s splendid granite façade. As I pass, I salute the man. I am unmoved by Lady Caroline Lamb’s famously damning designation of him, because nothing can alter the fact that it speaks well of a man when he cares about his pet crow’s toe.

But, back to Chicken: She sounds like a brilliant bird, the kind of feathered companion that I have only encountered in one other bookish adventure - the Thursday Next series. What was more, there is one memory that Woolfson shares that very much moved me because it reminded me so much of Pickwick, my beloved fictional Dodo.


On the morning last spring when I went into the kitchen to see on the floor a small splash of yolk and a scatter of pale greeny-blue spotted shell, I peered dimly at it, failing to recognise immediately what it was or where it had come from. When I did at last realise, I was as astonished as Chicken was uninterested. She paid no attention as I removed the pieces of shell and cleaned up the egg.

Before I had time to begin to phone the news around, I had found another egg, this time on the carpet, but nowhere near the nest. This one was intact, cold and equally ignored. I picked it up to keep.

As a proud new parent might, I phoned, sent photos of the egg to friends and family. Those long acquainted with Chicken were as amazed as I was. Congratulations were received, questions asked, mostly ones to which I had no answer: ‘What took her so long?’, ‘Is that common?’ For the people I told who didn’t know Chicken, it seemed, reasonably enough, unremarkable – Hey, guess what? Bird lays egg! – but for us, apart from the shock, it was the first confirmation that we’d ever had that our original, chance decision to designate her female was correct.

(show spoiler)


I loved that part. Not only because of the event itself but also because it showed Woolfson's appreciation for the peculiarity of her situation. It comes across in other parts of the book, too, when she describes how the things we can see everyday - if we choose to look! - may actually be rather special. 


I am not a twitcher but I do like to look at birds and other animals around, even if I can't name them. So, when Woolfson ventures to describe her attempts at seeing other wild birds in this area, I took notes - especially of when not to try and find pink-footed geese!

We turn down the road towards the Loch of Strathbeg and park under the awning with its wooden stanchions. We are the only people here. It has felt intermittently today as if we’re the only people anywhere. There is a farm building, now converted to a hide. We look out of the broad windows over the loch. The literature on the table tells us the facts, the numbers, that 20 per cent of the world’s population of pink-footed geese are to be found here at this time of year. On this particular day, though, they’re not. I don’t know where they are, the 20 per cent (which is many, many geese. On some days, thirty thousand.) I don’t know where they’ve gone but they’re not here. The loch is empty. Like us, they have gone out for the day. No one, no bird, stirs. There are no whooper swans, no wigeon, no teal. As bird watchers, we have failed. The grey water and reeds are stirred by wind. There are no geese.

I really enjoyed Corvus. I loved Woolfson's descriptions of Aberdeen, I loved her enthusiasm for wildlife, for protecting habitats, her advocacy for much maligned species. It is not just Chicken, and rooks/crows in general, that she tries to rehabilitate from a bad reputation. She also turns her enthusiasm to starlings and pigeons - tho, I learned that doves are essentially vicious, and she obviously does not even mention the Aberdonian seagull (thieving spawn of the devil!) who are universally acknowledged to be beyond redemption.  ;)


There is another member of the corvid family that the author "adopted" - Spike the magpie. This was another section I really enjoyed because, other than the myths of folklore, I knew very little about them, even though I often delight in watching a pair of magpies from my kitchen window. 

In a book on the wildlife of this city I read that, for a long time, there were few magpies in Aberdeen. They began, it is suggested, inhabiting suburban locations in the late 1940s, moving over the decades to establish themselves in urban parks and gardens. Where were they before that?

I had no idea their nesting in the city centre was only as recent as that. When watching the two that nest in the garden at the back of my building (together with some other birds), it seems like this is their natural environment and like they have never been anywhere else. 


 ‘Thieving’. ‘Aggressive’. ‘Cursed’. What was it about this bird? Could it be as simple as the fact that magpies are black and white? It seemed too much for one small bird to bear, all that’s contained, all that’s implied in the cultural and religious canons of Western civilisation, the symbolic, iconographic poles of culture and ideas: black and white. Heaven and earth, life, death, good, evil, light, darkness, all things fundamental, elemental, reductio ad absurdum, a universe of fears combined to obscure the evolutionary process that delivered this startling bird into a world that appears still unready for it.