Crows Have Lips

I didn’t know that. I thought they had beaks, and they do, but according to the book Gifts of the Crow, crows have four lips. They just aren’t where we mammals expect them to be. Crows, ravens and jays have four lips, at the intersection of the trachea and bronchial tubes. These, combined with six powerful muscles and a vocal apparatus called a syrinx, allow them to make hundreds of sounds and even imitate human speech. It also puts corvids in the category of songbirds, something that is a little harder to believe.

As some of you have observed, I’m on a crow kick — more accurately, a corvidae kick. With that curious synchronicity that seems to happen when you focus a lot of mental energy on a topic, two books on that very topic found their way to me lately. Well, one I had to go seek out, but still.

Wild Birds Unlimited is a Santa Rosa Store specializing in All Things Avian. They have seed mixes, suet and jam cakes, meal worms, feeders, houses, binoculars, spotting scopes, bird sculpture, bird jewelry, bird clothing and books on birds. I called them about two weeks ago to see if they had any books on the physiology of corvids. They did not.

By the way, books on the physicality of birds in general and corvids in particular are darned hard for me to find! People want to write books about corvids in mythology and folklore, and books about corvid behavior. Well, I want to read those books too, but right now I was curious about things like how a crow’s brain works, and what their resting heartbeat is (643 bpm)  and stuff like that.

“Nope,” the nice lady at Birds Unlimited said, “We don’ t have any books like that but we have a nice book called Bird Brains. It’s not about brains, exactly, but it’s about corvidae and how intelligent they are. It’s old though, it was written in 1995.”

Bird Brains was written by Candace Savage and published by the Sierra club, in 1995. Savage is an articulate writer who loves corvids, and the photographs in the book are outstanding. Savage includes folklore and folk tales about ravens, crows, magpies and jackdaws in sidebars on almost every page. Because of when she was writing it, Savage cannot back up her delightful anecdotes of the reasoning power, tool-making and innovation of crows with “hard science.”

Along came The Gifts of the Crow, by John Mazluff. This book was published in 2012. The way I found out about it was by talking to Brandy (another crow fan; hmm… crows and books, what’s up with that?) about my search. “Oh, a friend at Copperfield’s told me there a new book out about crows,” she said. “It’s on the non-fiction, New Arrivals table.”  On my break I went over, and there it was.

Science-tech has evolved since 1995 and many of the things that Savage opined upon in 1995 have now been proved, or in some cases disproved, by the use of infra-red cameras and brain scans on living birds. These techniques do not harm the birds.

Gifts of the Crow discusses key areas of corvidae behavior:

  1. Language
  2. Delinquency
  3. Insight
  4. Frolic
  5. Risk-Taking
  6. Awareness
  7. Passion, Wrath and Grief

I am talking about The Gifts of the Crow before I’ve finished it, something I rarely do, but the chapter on brain development and neurology alone is worth the price of the book. And the gem of knowledge that they have lips is worth it again.

Both books have good bibliographies, which also helps.

Gifts, while it is filled with charming pen and pencil sketches by Paul Angell, does not have photos. This may have been a marketing choice; they want it considered a science book, not a coffee table book, but still, it’s a shame. However, if you have Bird Brains on the table next to you while you are reading it, you can browse those exquisite photos as you read about these startling birds.

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