Making Worlds with Crows – New book draft completed

I am delighted to report that I have just finished work on the full first draft of a new book: Making Worlds with Crows: A Multispecies Ethics, forthcoming with Columbia University Press in 2018 or 2019.

The book is comprised of five chapters, each focused on human/crow relationships in a particular part of the world. The chapters are separated by short vignettes that draw on ethological literatures to explore some of the fascinating ways in which crows understand and inhabit their worlds.

Below I have included the table of contents and a few key paragraphs from the draft introduction to the book to give a fuller sense of the project.

Please get in touch with any questions.

Table of contents

Introduction: Worlding with Crows


1: Commoning Crows: Experiments in Multispecies Community (Brisbane, Australia)


2: Spectral Crows: Conservation and the Work of Inheritance (The Big Island, Hawai‘i)


3: Unwelcome Crows: Hospitality in the Anthropocene (Rotterdam, Netherlands)


4. Recognizing Ravens: Becoming Subjects Together (Mojave Desert, USA)


5: Provisioning Crows: Cultivating Ecologies of Hope (Rota, Mariana Islands)

From the (draft) introduction
Making Worlds with Crows is a multispecies ethics. It takes the form of a series of five stories, each one situated in a different part of the world, in a particular set of human/crow relationships. Each of these stories draws field research, primarily my own interviews and observations, into dialogue with the literatures of the environmental humanities and biology to explore how lives and deaths are taking form in these places, and in each case to ask what else might be possible. This is an approach to ethics grounded in situated engagements, grounded in the work of thinking-through the particular, of paying attention. Each chapter does so with the aid of a focal concept: community, inheritance, hospitality, recognition, and hope. In so doing, each chapter explores how this term, this mode of worlding, might be put to work—stretched, redone, perhaps disavowed—in the effort to imagine and craft better worlds. The aim of this book is not to produce a lexicon or an ethical ‘system’ that can be picked up and applied elsewhere, an “off-the-shelf ethics” (Ginn, Beisel, and Barua 2014, 113). Rather, it offers a set of particular stories for particular places; and crows, as we will see, are very particular kinds of creatures. In so far as there is a general offering here, it is that of an approach to ethics grounded in paying careful attention to the particular, in learning to see differently with others, and through this process becoming better able to contribute, however modestly, to the crafting of alternatives.

Crows are my guides and collaborators. As a virtually ubiquitous presence around the world—from the arctic to desert landscapes, from tiny islands to the largest continents, and throughout urban, rural, and ‘wilderness’ areas—thinking with crows offers a diverse range of instructive sites for exploring the challenges and possibilities of multispecies life. The crows with which most of us are familiar are those species that thrive on human waste and have taken up residence in cities and on farms. Indeed, few other animals have done as well out of humans as crows. But there is also a far less visible cohort of endangered crows—predominantly island species, forest and fruit specialists—that have been pushed to the edge of extinction by varied human activities (and in some cases over that edge). Around the world, and throughout this book, we encounter crows engaged in a range of relationships: some are deeply loved and passionately conserved, perhaps they are vital seed dispersers for endangered forests, while others are predominantly viewed as pests, scavengers on the detritus of human life, and maybe even agents of extinction through their actual or potential impacts on other species.

Through five specific sites, this book explores a small part of this corvid diversity. Chapter One focuses on the Torresian Crow (Corvus orru) in the Australian city of Brisbane, a sometimes loved and sometimes vilified urban presence. Chapter Two explores the complex and entangled forms that absence takes through the figure of the critically endangered Hawaiian Crow (C. hawaiiensis) in the forests of the Island of Hawai‘i. Chapter Three takes us to the small coastal town of Hoek van Holland in the Netherlands where the local government is diligently working to eradicate a small population of House Crows (C. splendens) who likely arrived in the area as stowaways on one of the many passing cargo ships. Chapter Four tells the story of some high-tech projects that aim to prevent the Common Raven (C. corax) from eating threatened tortoises in the Mojave Desert in the USA. Finally, Chapter Five takes us to the Island of Rota to explore contestations over the future of another endangered Pacific Island corvid, the Mariana Crow (C. kubaryi).

While these chapters all start with, and keep coming back to, the crows, they are at the same time stories of globalization and the expanding footprint of global trade, of a changing climate, of colonization and associated struggles for indigenous sovereignty and local autonomy, of entrenched patterns of unequal urbanization and economic development, of militarization and its diverse impacts on peoples and places. In short, they are stories about some of the major changes and challenges of our contemporary period, many of which cut across imagined divisions between ‘environmental’ and ‘social’ domains. They are stories of and for this time that is increasingly coming to be called ‘the Anthropocene’, in which particular forms of human life have begun to exert tremendous influence over everyone’s future possibilities (see Chapter Three). In taking up these topics, as with other work in the field of multispecies studies, this is a book that explores the way in which vital questions of justice, of unequal positionalities and exposures, are inescapably caught up in and woven through with, multispecies relationships.

Although this is a book about crows, it should already be clear that diverse groups of humans also get a lot of attention. In fact, this is really a book about crows and their people. For some readers there will likely be too much about crows. For others there will likely be too much about people. To these concerns I can only reply that this book is grounded in the conviction that the challenges of our current period demand modes of thought and attention that cut across these kinds of divisions to acknowledge rich and consequential patterns of entanglement. Certainly crows, but also many people, live and die, flourish or wither, inside these relationships.

Across the various sites that this book explores in detail, we encounter crows living very different kinds of lives. They eat different things, they inhabit different environments, they have very different conservation statuses, and will likely have sharply divergent futures. But in other ways they are also remarkably similar. In particular, crows all over the world seem to share many of the same complex cognitive, emotional and social competencies. They are, to put it simply, all very clever birds—at least by the standards that contemporary science uses to measure these things. Crows are now generally thought to be one of the most intelligent groups of animals on the planet (Emery 2017). This understanding is based largely on cognitive behavioural research that has really only taken firm shape in the last couple of decades, exploring areas ranging from tool use and even tool making, to ‘theory of mind’, insight and mental scenario building, prospective cognition, and the possession of a sense of fairness. These remarkable capacities are a key part of the stories that I tell in this book. They are woven into the five main chapters, with some of them also being discussed in detail in the short vignettes between chapters. These vignettes draw on the biological literatures, as well as interviews with biologists and visits to leading laboratories, to explore important facets of corvid behaviour and cognition. Taken together, these vignettes aim to thicken the presence of crows in the book by providing a fuller sense of who these birds are and how they inhabit and make sense of their worlds.

As noted above, I use the term crow to refer to the species of the genus Corvus, birds better known to most of us as crows, ravens, rooks, and jackdaws. These birds are all closely related; the particular common name that each of them has is more an accident of history than a reflection of any meaningful taxonomic difference. For example, those species around the world that happen to have been called ‘ravens’ are usually the bigger members of the genus in any given area, and are no more closely related to one another than they are to other members of the genus. The crows are predominantly black in colour, with about a quarter of the world’s species also having some grey or white. They are omnivorous birds, although species (and individuals) differ in the variability of their diets. Zooming out a little, the genus Corvus is part of the family Corvidae, which also includes jays, magpies, choughs and others. These birds are sometimes all referred to as ‘crows’, but I have used the alternative term ‘corvid’ to refer to this larger family. Members of this family, especially the jays, appear at various stages in this book, in particular with reference to some areas of cognitive research where there is a more detailed understanding of jay biology than there is of any of the crows. As discussed in more detail later in the book, as close relatives of the crows there is usually every reason to suppose that these capacities are widely shared and relatively similar amongst the corvids.

In telling crow stories, this book builds on the approach to storytelling as a situated, emergent, and ethically engaged practice that I developed in Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction. There, the focus was on thinking through the contours and significances of extinction—what extinction means and to whom—as well as the challenges of lives lived and ended at its many edges. Here, in contrast, I have put these same practices of storytelling to work to explore human/crow entanglements. While extinction—that of corvids or indeed other species—is a key feature of some of these stories, I have pursued a much broader set of contexts, of matterings, here. These are stories about interwoven and contested forms of colonisation, urbanisation, conservation, globalisation, trade, development, waste, and more. Taking members of a single genus, Corvus, as my guides—rather than a more diverse set of species—enabled me to tell stories that range out into these diverse contextual terrains without the focal species disappearing into the background. The aforementioned similarities between crows allows the diverse chapters—with their wide ranging geographical, cultural, and thematic concerns—to fold into one another in ways that enliven and thicken the stories I am telling.

Ultimately, this book is an effort to think through the complexity of our world re-making epoch. But, it is not a discussion of planetary problems and planetary solutions in the abstract. Nor is it a call to “local action”: to focus on small scale responses. It is rather an effort to subvert scale; to pay careful attention to some very particular places, their people, and their crows, as a way of grounding, making sense, and responding responsibly, to processes and problems that are often staggering in their immensity. In this way, this book aims to grapple with substantial questions while refusing abstraction; to cultivate ideas that are only as big as they absolutely need to be, rather than grand interventions. In this endeavour, I am in wholehearted agreement with Donna Haraway that “we need stories (and theories) that are just big enough to gather up the complexities and keep the edges open and greedy for surprising new and old connections” (2016, 101).

Image: “The eyes have it” (Torresian Crows) by Ian Sutton (CC BY 2.0)

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