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Posted on 12 May 2023 in Flashback Friday, Non-Fiction |

ESTHER WOOLFSON Corvus: A life with birds. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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First published in 2008, Esther Woolfson’s Corvus is part memoir, part natural history, and conveys her fascination with the birds living in her home.

As I write, the bird is behind me on her branch. From time to time she mutters, a sound softly bearing the imprint of the wind and the movement of trees, gentle approbation or comment, like the faintest creaking of an ancient door. Soon I’ll hear the fine clicking of her toe-nails on the wooden floor as she walks across to stand by my desk.

In 2008, Esther Woolfson was sharing her home with a rook named Chicken. Madam Chickeboumskaya (to give Chicken her full title) arrived unexpectedly in the family as an unfledged infant bird, beak agape ready for food. Woolfson’s first task was to discover what she ate. The daily diet recommended by an expert included 40 grams of rodents, 51 grams of chicks and a selection of ‘grasshoppers, locusts, crickets, beetles, grubs, moths or mealworms’. This was quickly reinterpreted by Woolfson as minced meat, eggs and chopped nuts. Thus, she and Chicken began a relationship that lasted for many years.

Chicken was not your usual caged, tamed bird. She had the run of most of the Woolfsons’ home and she had her own ‘shanty-house’ in Esther Woolfson’s study, where she slept, bathed, roosted and preened and from which she could come and go as she wished. She was quick to establish a place for herself in the family hierarchy, acknowledging ‘a limited degree of parental discipline’ from Esther and her husband David and maintaining a sort of sibling rivalry with their two daughters.

For someone who once experienced panic on finding a pigeon dead in her mother’s garden and ‘had to ask a neighbour to remove it’, Woolfson’s friendship with birds was not something she ever expected to happen. Yet she quickly became besotted with Chicken, just as she had been with a magpie called Spike and with other birds that, over the years, had shared her life, although none as fully as Chicken.

Corvus, however, is not just a book about living with a rook. Woolfson has read widely and she is a thoughtful and intelligent observer. She records the behaviour of Chicken and other birds, and muses on the lives of birds in general and her birds in particular, their skills, their intelligence, their behaviour and their historical relationship with humankind. She also has a lovely sense of humour.

I don’t find it difficult to believe that some birds have the capacity to do what might be described as thinking …

We used to see Chicken hiding things in the garden, worms, small stones, pinning a leaf over them with a twig to hide them and keep them in place … I watch Chicken caching … I see her smooth out paper so it will fit between the laths of the wall. Had I thought of it earlier I might have tried to teach them Greek and Latin.

Many birds, but especially corvids like rooks, magpies, crows, jays, jackdaws and ravens, have, over the centuries, been regarded as vermin, destroyers of food crops, and creatures of the Devil. In 1424, for example, laws were passed in Scotland (where Woolfson lived with Chicken) that required people to destroy these birds and their nests. Even today, the Wildlife and Countryside Act in England allows licensed landowners and occupiers to do the same. Superstition, too, has made corvids widely feared, and many myths, poems and stories confirm this. Yet, as Woolfson has discovered through her reading and through her life with Chicken, Spike, and, later, with a crow called Ziki, this evil reputation is largely unwarranted.

Corvus is part memoir, part musings, and part natural history. Woolfson’s interests range widely, from specific bird behaviours like nesting, song, migration and flight, to more wide-ranging topics like Chinese poetry, music, folklore, myth and legend.

Lord Byron, she tells us, although ‘best known for other matters entirely, seems to have been a man of catholic tastes in both people and animals’. His friend Shelley, visiting him in Ravenna, described his house as being shared with ‘dogs, monkeys, cats, peacocks, guinea hens, an eagle, a falcon, an Egyptian crane and a crow’. Byron himself wrote in his diary of feeding his hawk and his ‘tame (but not tamed) crow’, and complained of his crow being lame because ‘some fool trod on his toe, I suppose …’. Woolfson admits to having accidentally committed this ‘crime’ on Chicken just once.

Corvus is fascinating, funny, informative, loving and, just occasionally, a lesson in corvid science; and it is beautifully written by a woman whose own curiosity, intelligence and strength of character clearly draw her to birds that share these characteristics. We get to know Chicken quite well and to share some of the fascination she had for Woolfson. We get to know Spike, Ziki, a starling, a cockatiel, some parrots, two canaries and the inhabitants of the dove-house less well, but they have all played their part in genesis of this book.

Corvus is a very enjoyable account of some of the birds that have lived with Woolfson and taught her much in the process. In her own words:

Birds have arrived, the chosen and the unwanted, the damaged, the accidentally displaced from nests. They have stayed, or gone, leaving, all of them, their own determined avian imprint, entirely unrelated to size or species, and with each has been established an enduring sense of connection, one that extends far, towards a world, a life, a society, of which once I knew nothing at all.

Esther Woolfson Corvus Granta 2018 (first published 2008) PB 352pp $24.95

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages ( are archived by the British Library.

You can buy Corvus from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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