The Genius of Birds

(by Jennifer Ackerman).

As the author says, “For a long time, the knock on birds was that they’re stupid.  Beady eyed and nut brained.”  We know from the title of the book and that  “for a long time” that we are going to be told that birds are not feather-brained at all.  Ackerman says it all comes down to brain size – or not.  Sometimes a (relatively) large bird-brain correlates with  intelligence, sometimes it doesn’t.  Interestingly, it is rather the comparative size and history of development of different parts of the brain that correlate to specific abilities and behaviours.

That most vaunted of avian abilities – the capacity to return to home or migratory grounds unerringly even for the first time, – turns out to be as mysterious and complex as you can imagine.  Birds may navigate by a system composed of sight, hearing, geomagnetic sensing, sound and even smell.  Ackerman cites many examples of birds doing clever things – it is one of those books which cause the reader to look up and say, “did you know that the green-backed heron uses insects as bait to lure fish?  Or that only four groups of animals craft their own tools – humans, chimps, orang-utans and New Caledonian crows?”

Ackerman injects herself into the story too much and the studies are often rather dodgy.  A book for bird-lovers only.


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