Crow Smarts: Inside the Brain of the World’s Brightest Bird, by Pamela S. Turner, photographs by Andy Comins, illustrations by Guido de Filippo; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $18.99, 80 pages, ages 8-12.
It’s back-to-school time, and what better way to celebrate the return to class than with a book highlighting the intelligence of an oft-maligned creature, the crow. But not all corvids are created equal; the inhabitants of the French Overseas Territory of New Caledonia are considered “geniuses” and have been the subject of many fascinating studies on animal behavior. This particular subspecies has learned to create and implement a variety of tools for gathering food. For example, crows coax tasty grubs out of their hiding places by using hooks with a curved edge, and New Caledonian crows manufacture their tools from a local barb-edged plant. Scientists have even discovered that crows hold their tools along the right side or left side of their head–instead of being right- or left-handed, crows exhibit right- or left-laterality.
Award-winning nonfiction author (and crow rehabilitator) Pamela S. Turner takes readers on a lively tour of the world of New Caledonian crows by explaining what traits set these birds apart from their cousins abroad, how they’ve adapted to their environment, and what scientists are learning about the evolving field of animal intelligence. In a book geared to middle-grade readers, Turner successfully discusses complicated concepts like cumulative cultural evolution and various properties of intelligence by making the material approachable and providing facts that only a nine-year old could love (e.g., why crows eat the eyeballs off carrion). That also means a lot of references to Jedi warriors and other Star Wars characters, and the chief corvid scientist is referred to as “Gavin” rather than “Dr. Hunt.”
Crow scientist Guido de Filippo’s charming crow sketches are peppered throughout, and crisp photographs of crows at work by Andy Comins reinforce the concept that humans aren’t the only creatures capable of intelligent thought.
Crow Smarts confirms Henry Beecher Stowe’s comment (and opening epigraph) that “if men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows.” Turner’s latest scientific adventure would make a wonderful addition to any elementary-school library or back-to-school present for budding scientists.