the observer Sat 23 August 2008
Corvus designates a genus of birds - rooks, crows and ravens - that possesses a vexed reputation in these islands, held in superstitious fear by farmers and city folk alike. In his 2006 memoir, Running for the Hills, the otherwise acutely environmentally minded Horatio Clare described the crows on his mother's hill farm as 'ministers of the devil'. But in the past year, corvids have found two champions in naturalist Mark Cocker, whose Crow Country was nominated for the Samuel Johnson Prize, and Esther Woolfson, a Scottish novelist who has produced a beguiling account of her life with a menagerie of corvids, not to mention a foul-mouthed starling named Max.
Woolfson's relationship with her birds bears little resemblance to that of the average avian enthusiast. Chicken, the courtly, timid rook that she adopted as a nestling, is more a familiar than a pet, while the raucous magpie Spike was practically a surrogate son, albeit one hellbent on wrecking the parental home. Though they live domesticated lives, these are wild birds, 'resolute as iron', and the ethics of their transfer into a human realm is a preoccupation to which Woolfson repeatedly returns.
The birds don't fly freely, nor do they live in the sociable groupings that they would naturally gravitate towards. But their lives extend far longer than those of wild birds and they reside in a house impressively geared to the needs of its feathered inhabitants. If the price paid is a slightly less than pristine kitchen, then the benefits for Woolfson and her family are multiple. The birds are a source of intense joy and each tenuous, fragile cross-species bond brings with it the sense of expansion that is the gift of any unlikely friendship. 'With each has been established an enduring sense of connection, one that extends far, towards a world, a life, a society, of which I once knew nothing at all.'
She's not the first writer to fall for the charms of the corvids. Byron had among his extensive travelling menagerie a crow, while Truman Capote adopted a raven named Lola, who would steal his car keys and bully his dogs. The reason for their affection is clear. Corvids are among the most intelligent of birds, sociable, curious and possessed of what appears to be a sense of humour.
Like all the best accounts of a life shared with animals (Gerald Durrell comes inevitably to mind), Corvus offers much in the way of domestic comedy. The perils of sharing one's house with birds that are only irregularly caged are all too palpable; aside from the inevitable droppings, there is the corvids' compulsive habit of caching to contend with. Morsels of food - goats' cheese is a particularly noisome favourite - are hidden under rugs or in the turn-ups of jeans, while papers are regularly deposited in the almighty hole Chicken has excavated in the kitchen wall.
There is something of the corvid about Woolfson herself. Her exquisitely written account dips hither and thither, accumulating odd fragments of bird lore (those concerning magpies are a particular delight). Playfulness aside, she's possessed of the two most vital characteristics in a nature writer: a gimlet eye and a curiosity almost as insatiable as that of her birds. She ponders the meaning of Chicken's caching habits, climbs a mountain at dawn to view ravens nesting and studies passing geese to try to unlock the mysteries of migration.
Though it is gallopingly readable, Corvus stands as a serious corrective to the prevailing notion that only exotic and unfamiliar animals are worthy of attention or protection; that preciousness is automatically linked to scarcity. Corvids have no doubt suffered because of their ubiquity, yet the fact that they are so willing to share their lives with humans should make them more interesting to us, not less. 'Familiarity,' Woolfson observes, 'does not dull me to the wonder of birds, what they are and what they do. Chicken becomes more mysterious, more miraculous the more I learn, the more I observe.'
Blake found a world in a grain of sand; it seems Woolfson has managed the same trick with a rook.