For the Birds Radio Program: Book Review: Bird Brains

Original Air Date: Dec. 20, 1995

Here’s a gift suggestion that would please Jim Baker and Blue Jay lovers everywhere: Bird Brains: The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies, and Jays.

Audio missing


On my birthday last month, my sister-in-law gave me a book with the engaging title, Bird Brains: the Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies and Jays, by Candace Stevens. This book is brimming with exquisite photographs and is a clearly written and delightful account of how smart nature’s perfect birds really are. Once I opened it, I kept it open, devouring the whole beautiful thing in one fell swoop. Despite the title, this isn’t a dry account of corvid lQ’s–Savage writes more about the rich, almost human, qualities of jays and crows, and how many elements of their social lives are rather similar to our own, from their courtship and mating rituals and their lasting devotion to their young to their bereavement when they lose mate, child, or friend.

Candace Savage researched this book well, citing many of the world’s leading ornithologists, but she doesn’t limit herself to the scientific, quoting such corvid fanciers as Edgar Allan Poe and the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, who wrote in the mid-1800s that “If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows,” There’s the Aesop fable about the crow and the pitcher, and a Finnish tale explaining how and why God stretched the magpie’s tail feathers so long. She includes an English counting rhyme that tells us what to expect if we see a group of magpies: “One for sorrow,/ Two for mirth,/ Three for a wedding,/ Four for a birth,/ Five for rich,/ Six for poor,/ Seven for a witch,/ I can tell you no more.” And her own text, rich in interesting and sometimes amusing anecdotes, makes the book a thoroughly enjoyable read.

The photographs alone are worth the price of the book. There are charming pictures of a crow taking water from a drinking fountain in Vancouver and three baby crows in a row, showing their blue eyes and red mouths to perfection, along with lots of photos of magpies , some in flight, some against snow, all showing just how beautiful this extraordinary bird is, with its tail longer than the rest of its body. There are also several Gray Jays pictures, all showing clearly how they look just like chickadees on steroids.

Unfortunately, there are only two photos in the whole book of Nature’s Perfect Bird, the Blue Jay, probably because Candace Savage lives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, which is rather northwest of their range. Bird Brains : The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies and Jays is as close to a perfect book as you can currently find about this family, but I guess if I’m ever going to find the definitive book about Blue Jays, I’ll just have to write it myself.