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19 march 2011

Figuratively, I've eaten a lot of crow in my life, but literally, never. Crow is said, of course, to taste like chicken. But nobody ever eats crows, though they'd be an abundant game source (so unendangered that, in Texas at least, you're always free to shoot as many as you like). Native Americans and immigrants alike have always seen the crow as a taboo meat, though not out of any great spiritual reverence. Crows, as ominvores, eat carrion; since they eat us, we are reluctant to eat them.

Boria Sax's Crow was the first Reaktion Animal book to be published, and has served as a model for the series. Sax puts little ornithology into the book; his focus is on salient corvid appearances in worldwide mythology and culture. Chapters study crows in European antiquity, middle ages, and modernity; others look at the crow in Asia and the Americas.

Sax's most interesting observation, for me, comes late in the book.

Crows are among the very few creatures that manage to occupy approximately the same habitats as human beings while doing us, in pragmatic ways at least, very little good or harm. They often give an impression of sublime indifference to people, as though waiting patiently for the era of human beings to pass. (159)

Sax contrasts crows to rats, rabbits, and pigeons, which share our habitats and can be nuisances, but are also kept as pets, livestock, research subjects, or (in the case of pigeons) workers. Crows, on the other hand, are more like squirrels; we co-exist closely with them, but little benefit or harm flows in either direction. Like squirrels, crows can sometimes be tamed, but their default value is standoffish and unafraid.

Crows are hated by farmers. Sax explores the contradictions of that hatred. Crows eat far more insect pests than grain, yet are routinely shot as marauders. Farmers construct scarecrows to protect their fields, in full knowledge that no crow has ever been scared by one. In fact, scarecrows and their hi-tech descendants (like automatic fireworks devices and electric lightshows) are likelier to frighten humans than crows. But the compulsion to scare crows remains deeply embedded in human agricultural rituals.

Crows have the largest brains among birds, relative to their body weight; ravens apparently have the largest birdbrains absolutely. (It does not seem right that a crow should have a bigger brain than an ostrich, though I guess that's the implication.) Tales of uncanny crow intelligence abound. Sax wonders if they're too smart for their ecological niche. Crows spend a lot of time goofing off in capricious ways; Sax compares them to bored gifted children.

Crow includes ravens, and also jays, magpies, rooks, and daws in its pages. It's given me a new perspective on animals I'd vaguely detested, though they've done absolutely nothing to me.

Sax, Boria. Crow. London: Reaktion, 2003.