Book Review: “The Genius of Birds” by Jennifer Ackerman

The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman

Ackerman loves birds. This much is clear! And, lucky woman, she had the opportunity to assemble this great book about the cognitive abilities of birds.

As she says, birds have a bad rap of being “bird brains”, robotic bundles of instinct. This despite the astonishing abilities of birds, who can navigate across vast distances, remember the location hundreds of food caches, and even mimic songs and voices.

The prejudice comes from early misunderstandings of brain science, which saw bird brains as tiny and organized quite differently than humans. They are different, therefore they must not be “smart” like we are.

Ackerman makes clear that birds are definitely different from humans, but many of the differences reveal birds to be superior to us in their own arena. Given that birds have been on Earth as long as mammals and much longer than humans, and that they are highly successful in pretty much every place on the planet, we shouldn’t be surprised that they are really good at a lot of things.

The differences make for really interesting reading.

For one thing, birds are quite diverse. Some species are “smarter” than others, and some individuals within a species smarter than others. Of course, many species excel at specific tasks, such as navigation, foraging, or hunting. And many birds are very social, living in groups, cooperating and competing with each other.

Bird brains are different than human brains, but they accomplish many of the same tasks. A second way to “solve the same problem” is always very revealing, and can lead to insights into human brains.

Birds have plenty of unique skills, including navigation, remembering food, and keeping track of each other. They also communicate, strategize, and use tools.

Throughout the book, the life and cognitive skills of our avian friends are described, along with the current scientific evidence and hypotheses. The ingenuity and heroic hard work of the experimenters and investigators is enlightening and inspiring. In all, Ackerman synthesizes natural history, theory, and laboratory experiments, to paint as comprehensive picture as possible of the cognitive abilities of birds.

Equally important, Ackerman is very careful about the edges of what we know. Do birds have emotions? Maybe some do, but the case is hard to make. How do birds navigate? We have some ideas, but we don’t really know.  And so on.

The last chapter considers the interesting topic of how these incredibly adaptable feathered dinosaurs are adapting to the tough challenges of Athropocene. Some species are doing OK, others are dying out, and many are likely to be driven toward extinction.

There is a memorable image of birds who thrive only in a relatively narrow band on mountainsides. As the climate warms up, they are moving up the slope, trying to stay within their living zone. But the area shrinks as they climb the pyramid of the mountains, and soon enough, they will be at the peak and “run out of mountain”. and That will be that.

Other species seem to take to human cities, though it is a hostile and quite changeable environment. But soon the only wild species to survive will be city birds who survive by fitting in to the human world.

This is a great book about contemporary science, nature, and birds.

  1. Jennifer Ackerman, The Genius of Birds, New York, Penguin Press, 2016.


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