We ooh and aah over their colorful plumage. We adore their antics. We marvel at their ability to soar, turn, and plummet. But how often do we admire birds for their intelligence? Read The Genius of Birds, and you’ll realize that being called a “bird brain” can be quite a compliment.
From fascinating behaviors to the minutest details of neurophysiology, author Jennifer Ackerman takes us on an incredible adventure into how birds think. Meet Alex, the African Grey Parrot who had a vocabulary of hundreds of English words, and knew how to use them. What’s more, he understood the concept, not only of numbers, but of zero.
Or how about the New Caledonian crows who make their own tools, then pass along their expertise to their offspring? They’re able to solve multiple problems to reach a food reward, creating tools in order to access more tools to reach the treat. And if a particular tool works especially well, they’ll carry it with them as they go.
They are tool makers, solvers of complex problems, linguistic virtuosos. The more we study them, the more we discover that birds are smarter than we think!
Of course, all birds are not the same; even closely related species can differ widely in their abilities. Some species accomplish remarkable feats of memory. To ensure their winter food supply, Gray Jays are able to remember six months later where they have cached tens of thousands of seeds and nuts over hundreds of square miles.
Other species (think long distant migrants, or pigeons), know exactly where they are, and are able to return home from far distant climes. Corvids and parrots are consummate problem solvers. Black-capped Chickadees have an extensive language, complete with syntax. They are so good at warning one another about potential predators that other birds have learned the pay attention—the more dee-dee-dees, the bigger the perceived threat. And if you’ve ever searched for that rare bird you’re hearing, only to discover it’s actually a mockingbird, you’ll know that some species are multilingual, learning the songs of hundreds of other species.
Throughout the book, Ackerman draws parallels between bird and human brains and abilities. Like humans, birds have large brains for their body size. We share analogous brain circuits and processes, such as for learning song and speech. We both sleep and dream. In many cases, we both achieve the same result, but via very different approaches—an example of convergent evolution.
How do birds accomplish such marvels? New studies reveal that birds’ brains are structurally different from the brains of mammals. They have a higher concentration of neurons packed into their heads, helping them think while still being light enough to fly.
Of course, not all birds are Einsteins. There’s a trade-off between hardwired and smart. Pheasants, plovers, and other species with precocial young start life with enough skills to survive on their own, but are less able to learn additional ones. They’re able to run and feed within hours of hatching, whereas other species are dependent on mom and/or dad for weeks or even months. But just as with mammals, those birds who require the most parental care grow up to be the most able to learn and adapt.
Birds that migrate long distances are likewise more “programmed” than those who focus on getting to know a specific home turf. That makes sense; big brains are heavy and require a lot of energy—energy that migrants need for flying. In addition, these birds don’t stick around one place long enough to benefit from trial-and-error learning.
Not only is The Genius of Birds fascinating—jam packed with information—it’s a pleasure to read. While Ackerman assumes that her readers will understand some big words and scientific concepts, the technical parts are broken up by plenty of true stories, and engaging examples illustrate each principle. I had a hard time putting it down.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Genius of Birds. I think you will too.
The answer to last week’s quiz is a Willet.