Genius of Birds: Book Review

Jennifer Ackerman has been writing about science, nature, and human biology for almost three decades. Ackerman is a contributor to Scientific American, National Geographic, The New York Times, and many other publications. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship in Nonfiction, a Bunting Fellowship, and a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Birds, she shows, are astonishingly intelligent creatures. I can attest to this first hand. I also know that all animals are well adapted to their environment and each species is intelligent enough to survive.

According to new research, some birds rival primates and even humans in their remarkable forms of intelligence.  Like humans, many birds have enormous brains relative to their size. Although small, bird brains are packed with neurons that allow them to punch well above their weight. I have written quite a few articles regarding chicken intelligence for Countryside Network.

In The Genius of Birds,  author Jennifer Ackerman explores the newly discovered brilliance of birds and how it came about. To learn about dog intellilgence, check out my book review on the similarly titled The Genius of Dogs. As Ackerman, fortunately, travels around the world to the most cutting-edge frontiers of research— the distant laboratories of Barbados and New Caledonia, the great tit communities of the United Kingdom and the bowerbird habitats of Australia, the ravaged mid-Atlantic coast after Hurricane Sandy and the warming mountains of central Virginia and the western states—Ackerman not only tells the story of the recently uncovered genius of birds but also delves deeply into the latest findings about the bird brain itself that are revolutionizing our view of what it means to be intelligent.

Ackerman discusses the Clark’s nutcracker, a bird that can hide as many as 30,000 seeds over dozens of square miles and remember where it put them several months later; the mockingbirds and thrashers, species that can store 200 to 2,000 different songs in a brain a thousand times smaller than ours; the well-known pigeon, which knows where it’s going, even thousands of miles from familiar territory; and the New Caledonian crow, an impressive bird that makes its own tools.

I found it interested that only more than a decade ago Louis Lefebvre invented a scale to measure avian intelligence. Lefebvre, who trained under evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, believes he is known as the pellet and water guy, to the birds.  The tameness of the birds on Barbados lend themselves to experiments involving manipulating food, such as dunking food in water. The researcher says that there is a cost/benefit ration here, as other birds often times still food that is being soaked. “That seems like intelligent behavior by any measure,” Ackerman writes.   

In addition to highlighting how birds use their unique adaptations (intelligence) in technical ways, Ackerman teaches readers the impressive social smarts of birds. I remember in my college Animal Behavior and Animal Communication classes that birds, like many other taxonomic groups, will deceive, manipulate, eavesdrop, display a strong sense of fairness, give gifts, share and tease. Birds, play keep-away and tug-of-war and create social networks. They vie for status. They kiss to console one another. They teach their young. They blackmail their parents. They alert one another to danger. They summon witnesses to the death of a peer. They may even grieve.

I have always loved birds and this book reconfirmed my experiences.

teenage-coogan-with-ducks

This scientific investigation and travelogue incorporates Ackerman’s personal anecdotes with fascinating science. Ackerman delivers a story that gives readers a new appreciation for the exceptional talents of birds and let them discover what birds can reveal about our changing world.

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