Saturday, February 22, 2014

Corvus - A Life with Birds by Esther Woolfson

A Life with Birds
by Esther Woolfson
3 stars - shorter would have been better
ALR Green - bird loving lady writing about birds, doesn't get any greener

Corvus is a book of Esther Woolfson's reflections on her life with birds. It also contains sections on bird history, bird anatomy, and bird behavior.

Birds are way cool, no doubt. One of my favorite pastimes is watching the activity of the birds who frequent our back yard feeders. I suppose I'm not unique in watching with a bit of envy videos posted of smarty pants pet birds talking, solving puzzles, and being all around great companions.

That said, my own forays into actual bird ownership have been disappointing. Maybe I don't have the patience to be bird momma.

In the book, Ms. Woolfson discusses the behaviors of the large variety of birds that have shared her home with her. Many of them foundlings, flung from their nests with a death sentence hanging over their heads. 

Crows, rooks, magpies, ravens, doves have all found shelter and love in her home.

Chance, a single moment, the confluence of fallen bird and receptive human, has changed me from observer to something else, something I can't even name; adoptive parent, housemate, beneficiary. Perhaps there is no name, no need for a name. A rook lives in my house and now, a young crow. I am in loco parentis for an elderly cockatiel. For years, a magpie, a starling, some small parrots, and two canaries lived here too. A number of doves inhabit a small outhouse - more of a shed - a structure elevated from its lowly role of having once contained coal by being given the name of dove-house.

I can't fault Ms. Woolfson on her writing style. It is rich and evocative. 

The Glasgow house where I was brought up had, in the way of houses of the time, no heating, only inadequate fireplaces, most of them unused, and a large stove in the kitchen. The possibility of installing heating was, as I recall, briefly discussed, my father's reluctance to have the Arts and Crafts panelling warped by the drying effects of central heating eventually overriding all other considerations, and so we continued to endure the almost universal experience of Scottish life of the time, ice on the insides of bedroom windows, fierce dashes from bed to clothes, the only warm piece of anatomy at bath time being the portion submerged.

Interestingly, her father, concerned for the welfare of the three small family dogs, was sure to keep them wrapped in snugly sweaters throughout the winter (despite their being "well-fleeced" poodles).

What it definitely did was prevent me from gaining any false ideas about the superior place human beings occupy in the world.

I fear, though, she fell off the rails a bit with the length and density of the book. In addition to delightful stories regarding the resident birds, the reader is also presented with chapters discussing bird history, biology, and behavior. In the beginning, they enhanced the story, but by mid point, these chapters began to bog me down and I confess to merely skimming them, eager to learn more about the actual day to day activities of her avian companions.

Congratulations to Ms. Woolfson for including several pages detailing the elimination habits of birds. I fear it is their lack of regard for where they poop (and the enthusiasm for same) that is my undoing as a potential bird owner. While Ms. Woolfson is happy to gamely follow her friends about, washcloth in hand, as well as engage in regular steam cleaning of carpets and furniture, I, for one, would not have the consistency to keep up.

Then there is the hording or caching. Birds, apparently, love to stockpile stuff. There are holes drilled into the walls by persistent beaks. Holes which contain all manner of items, including the occasional food reserve which can be detected by the odor of putrefaction (no thanks). 

Her magpie, Spike, was also a fan of knocking things about. After watching glasses and plates plunge from countertops, the human residents were compelled to keep all magpie movable objects either locked up or, in the case of canisters, glued to the countertop (again, no thanks).

Overall, this is a restive and calming book to read. Nothing scary happens and the prose is soothing. 

1 comment:

  1. My oldest daughter has parakeets, and they make me laugh with their singing, scolding each other, etc. I've also seen them collaborate to take down all of the toys she hangs in their cage, which is really funny. I'm glad she doesn't bring a "Spike" into the house, though.