A Life With Birds

Esther Woolfson

Published: 1 March 2018
Paperback, B Format
129x198mm, 352 pages
ISBN: 9781783784486


One spring, many years ago, Esther Woolfson's daughter rescued a fledgling rook. That rook, named Chicken, quickly established herself as part of the family, and other birds, including an irascible cockatiel and a depressive parrot, soon followed. But it was the corvids - members of the crow family - who amazed Woolfson with their personality and their capacity for affection. This classic blend of memoir and natural history combines the author's fascination with all things avian, from the mechanics of flight to the science of birdsong, with her funny, tender stories of life among the birds.

About the author

Image of Esther Woolfson

Esther Woolfson grew up in Glasgow and studied Chinese at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Edinburgh University. Her acclaimed short stories have appeared in many anthologies and have been read on Radio 4. She is the author of Corvus: A Life with Birds, published by Granta Books. She has won prizes for both her stories and her nature writing. She has been the recipient of a Scottish Arts Council Travel Grant and a Writer's Bursary. Her latest book, Field Notes from a Hidden City (Granta Books), was shortlisted for the 2014 Thwaites Wainwright Prize for Nature and Travel Writing. She lives in Aberdeen. More about the author


‘[A] wonderful, wonderfully odd, account ... Woolfson, an acute and lively observer of the natural world, delights in documenting their social intelligence and character ... Her pets may be domesticated but what really shines through here is the mysterious, mystical power of corvids’ Claire Allfree



‘[Woolfson's] possessed of the two most vital characteristics in a nature writer: a gimlet eye and a curiosity almost as insatiable as that of her birds ... Gallopingly readable, Corvus stands as a serious corrective to the prevailing notion that only exotic and unfamiliar animals are worthy of attention or protection ... Blake found a world in a grain of sand; it seems Woolfson has managed the same trick with a rook’ Olivia Laing

‘[Woolfson] writes an evocative and amusing diary of their life ... it all makes a fascinating and satisfying package’ Chris Benfield

Corvus is a delightful read and gives us a glimpse into the realm of birds that many birders never see’

Corvus is a lovingly detailed account of sharing a house with a rook called Chicken ... This book is so entertaining and intelligent’ P. J. Kavanagh

Corvus is a sort of joyous, commonplace book of her observations of birds ... Woolfson's gentle, humorous prose style offers a delightful insight into an unfamiliar world’ Jenni Frazer

Corvus is beautifully written, informative, humorous and truthful. Esther has gained a great knowledge of corvid behaviour by spending each and every day for the past 16 years with them ... No corvid lover should be without a copy, order yours today!’

Corvus is funny, fascinating, informative, loving and, just occasionally, a lesson in corvid sccience; and it is beautifully written by a woman whose own curiosity, intelligence and strength of character clearly draws her to birds which share these characteristics’ Ann Skea

‘A delightful account ... Woolfson succeeds in showing that we are much closer to birds than we think’ Philip Womack

‘A funny, tender and elegantly written insight into the closeness human being can achieve with wild creatures’

‘A funny, touching story’ H. J. Kirchhoff

‘A gentle, funny, reflective and often wonderful account of a family's life with birds. In its charm, joy and feel for eccentricity, Corvus reminded me of Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other AnimalsRobert Macfarlane

‘A lyrical tribute to feathered flyers, and in particular to the titular corvids, shedding light on a creature that is otherwise much maligned’ Rob Fletcher

‘A meditation on the role of birds in our lives ... It's also a charming portrait of Chicken and her life lived in the Woolfson household that reveals so much about the extraordinary behaviour of these birds’

‘A number of qualities make this unlikely book such a triumph. The first is the author's character, as revealed in the tone of her narrative voice. Then there is the deceptive simplicity of Woolfson's best writing. Finally though, it is her ever-present sense of fresh wonder which carries us lightly to the very last page’

‘A quirky eccentric book ... the book is full of well-written bird science ... it's the author's acute observations that make this book fascinating ... I thoroughly recommend’

‘A satisfying read from a masterful stylist, this will appeal to any fan of nature writing or personal essays’

‘A stimulating blend of memoir and natural history’

‘A tender and nuanced book ... richly observed and finely written’ Tim Dee

‘A truly brilliant memoir on relationships with animals, in particular several corvids, plus snippets of natural and cultural history’ Sarah Broadhurst

‘Absorbing and heart-warming’ Marcus Tanner

‘An enchanting memoir of a life spent with an inquisitive magpie and sociable rook as "pets" ... Woolfson is aware that she mustn't anthropomorphise these familiar birds but reading her beautifully warm prose it's impossible not to. The nature book of the year by some margin’

‘An odd and beautifully written book’ Audrey Niffenegger

‘Centred on a rook named Chicken, this fascinating book is part memoir, part natural history of birds, with the emphasis on the crow family - the corvids ... weaving mythology and superstition with the latest research findings to produce an informative and satisfying book’ Gail Harland

‘Charming and brimming with the sort of observations that come from long, close study’ Colin Waters

‘Charming, informative and fascinating’ Rory McGrath, author of BEARDED TIT: A LOVE STORY WITH FEATHERS

‘Crammed full of excellently curmudgeonly rants about people and places’ Lindsay Bagshaw

‘Esther Woolfson has lived with a rescued rook called Chicken, as well as a magpie and a crow, and this captivating book about her experiences seamlessly mixes expertise and anecdote in a beautifully written memoir’ Katie Law and David Sexton

‘Esther Woolfson's Corvus: A Life with Birds is a delightful account of her relationships with various members of the crow family, and in particular a rook called Chicken’ Stephen Moss

‘Fascinating, often charming ... what makes the book distinctive has to do with its charting of the remarkable relationships Woolfson and her family have had with birds’ Harry Eyres

‘Funny, touching and beautifully written - a fascinating insight into the closeness human beings can achieve with wild creatures’

‘Honest observations and restrained writing’

‘In a humorously poetic voice Woolfson discusses the natural history, science and mythology of birds, of corvids in particular and the condition of her own life at home in the wild with birds in Scotland’ Iain Finlayson

‘It will be apparent to the alert reader that crows have become the new dog. No book about these intelligent, witty, exploitative creatures can be bad. The most enjoyable that I read this year was Corvus: A Life with Birds, whose seductively dotty author, Esther Woolfson, lives in what appears to be an aviary of wounded and rescued birds’ Andro Linklater

‘It's a testament to her wonderful writing and observational skills that, halfway through this delightful book, I found myself sobbing into my pillow for a magpie I had never met. She also made me laugh and marvel at the antics of birds which have shared her life ... a fascinating entertaining and moving read which can't fail to melt the heart of anyone with an interest in the world around them’ Morag Lindsay

‘Like all the best accounts of a life shared with animals (Gerald Durrell comes inevitably to mind), Corvus offers much in the way of domestic comedy ... Exquisitely written ... Gallopingly readable’

‘Nature writing at its best’ Robert Collins

‘Part nature study, part memoir of a woman who grew (somewhat to her own amazement) to love birds and to "live thoughtfully with them''... Her birds emerge from the book with distinct personalities’ Susan Mansfield

‘Rearing rooks requires infinite patience. Fortunately, Woolfson's book indicates that she possesses not just this, but a sense of humour and a gift for fine writing’ Mark Cocker

‘Rooks, crows, magpies and starlings are on my personal hit list of birds that would not be missed, up there with seagulls. It says, then, almost all that needs to be said about Esther Woolfson's writing that two-thirds of the way through this book I felt for her when Spike the pugnacious magpie died ... [Woolfson's] flow brings her favourites alive on the page’ Fordyce Maxwell

‘Since her daughter brought home a fledgling rook many years ago, Woolfson and her family have shared their home in Aberdeen with it, as well as with a magpie, a crow and sundry lesser species. Corvus recounts their progress with great affection and some elegance’ Andrew Langley

‘The most unusual and compelling nature book’ Rosemary Goring

‘The science in it is impeccable. It's based on acute observation and is very readable ... If you have an interest in such things you should get hold of a copy’ Dick Warner

‘This delightful blend of memoir and natural history reveals the pleasure that comes from closeness to wild creatures’ Charlotte Vowden

‘This is a beautifully written, detailed account of her relationship with them and a paean to the "wonder" of birds often ignored or disliked, who can "shame humanity" by their exquisite attention to manners’ Katie Owen

‘To the uninitiated, crows, rooks and magpies are squawking pests who hog the bird table, destroy crops and bring bad luck to the superstitious. To Esther Woolfson they are the unsung stars of the bird world - smart, affectionate and comical living companions who have been enriching her life for nearly two decades’ Morag Lindsay

‘Woolfson vividly evokes the details of her strange relationship with her feathered house guest’ Peter Davies

‘Woolfson's detailed observations of the birds' personalities are beautifully written, never saccharine and, with drawings, make a charming read’ Linda Herrick

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