Corvus: A Life With Birds


Esther Woolfson knew little about birds before Chicken showed up. No older than four weeks, Chicken was rescued by a group of Girl Guides and taken to the author’s house. Besides Chicken, she also took in doves a neighbor was giving away, a flightless parrot a pet store no longer wanted, an “oil orphan” starling named Max, and a quiet crow named Ziki. As her life filled with birds, Esther made adjustments. She turned an old tool shed into a dove house. She learned to clip feathers, feed young birds, and replace eggs to keep her doves at a manageable number.

What Woolfson knew about birds came from literature and art and sightings in the neighborhood. Soon after she began living with birds, though, her perceptions changed. She found out that doves are not as peaceful as she saw depicted in paintings, and that birds have interesting personalities and skills. She grew close to her birds, caring enough to notice that garbage bags scared Chicken and chessboards scared Bardie. To keep her birds happy, she didn’t patch up the hole in the kitchen wall they used for caching, she drove three hours to get a new mate for a dove, and she kept the curtains open for Chicken’s comfort. I think in noticing the details about these birds, she became hooked for life.

In her memoir, Woolfson includes information from many different books and studies. Bird navigation and corvid distribution segue into a story about a starling Mozart owned. Information about bird intelligence is followed by stories about her birds and references to poems, plays, and stories that show a historical perspective.

For those of us who haven’t had the opportunity to observe birds close-up, Woolfson’s descriptions are a treat. She describes how Chicken’s eyes have changed over the years, how shocking it can look when a bird is sunbathing, and how Chicken’s feathers change with her mood. The description I can picture the best is that “Chicken has the enviable attribute of being able to turn her head upside down and look underneath the fridge or sofa.”

The twenty-one black-and-white illustrations in this book include a drawing of a baby rook and Chicken with her toy mouse, but because the book is such a personal story, I wish there were photographs instead. I would have loved to have seen a picture of Chicken on the author’s knee or Ziki when he arrived in the converted cat carrier.

Divided into three sections (Beginnings, Life with Corvids, and Bird Seasons), Corvus includes a bibliography with over seventy references and a thirteen-page index. Beginnings focuses on the author’s childhood and how she started caring for doves. In the second section, the author shares many funny stories and interesting observations about Chicken and Spike. For example, Chicken can be loud when she wants to be. When spring comes, Chicken starts clanging her food bowls as she carries them around the house, and when she disagrees with the music being played, or she sees cleaning equipment in the vicinity, she can cause quite a commotion. She can also trick the family with her eyes. They ask each other “Is she asleep on your side?” because of her ability to rest with one eye open and one eye shut. These birds also like to keep busy. They love to stash away their food – even in a boot that is being worn at the time! Compared to Chicken, though, Spike is fearless. He will investigate everything and try to topple anything. His most surprising ability is his voice (which can pass for the author’s) and his fixation with keeping his feathers neat and clean.

Like all the early researchers mentioned in this book, Woolfson took risks and recorded her experiences so that others could learn from them and be delighted. She always liked birds, but in taking responsibility for their health and happiness, she grew to respect and admire them, and today she feels a connection with them. People who feel protective of birds will sincerely enjoy this book.

To win a copy of this book, be the eleventh person to email a funny bird-related memory to [email protected]