Tue, 19 Dec 2006

In the Company of Crows and Ravens

— SjG @ 9:40 pm

John M. Marzluff & Tony Angell, Yale University Press, 2005

The subject of animal intelligence is emotionally charged and controversial, often pitting steely-eyed, cold-hearted scientists against pet-owners and their fuzzy, big-eyed companions. The scientists want to see repeatable experimental data before making a judgement call, whereas the pet owners are overwhelmed with evidence.

In the Company of Crows and Ravens falls into both camps simultaneously.

On the side of science, the book documents examples of culture among animals — learned behaviors that have are localized to specific groups and which are passed on from generation to generation. It describes the co-evolution of human and animal culture, and gives concrete examples of where the behavior of one species influences a cultural practice or tradition in another. On its main subject, the family corvidae, it describes experiments confirming the ability to recognize individuals of other species, the use of group-specific vocabulary, and documents observed shifts in group behaviors in response to outside influences which is then taught to others outside the influence area. It even documents observations of brand loyalty among crows, and cultural place memories.

On the other side, however, the book is a paean to corvids, their cleverness, and their playful ways. It is clear that the authors love these birds, respect them, and maybe even want them to be smarter and more talented than the actual average crow.

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