The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman

genius of birdsMost of us don’t consider the term “bird brain” to be a compliment!  However, scientists who study the intelligence of birds, using experiments, collections of anecdotes about bird behavior, and brain imaging, find them far from stupid.  Many species have rather large brains, considering their size, and even those with small brains may have amazing abilities.

In addition to describing various scientific studies, The Genius of Birds includes many wonderful anecdotes about birds.  A New Caledonian crow worked an eight-step puzzle in two and a half minutes.  Observers in the jungle have heard parrots cursing, apparently having learned these words from escaped pets.  Chickadees use a sophisticated “language” to warn other birds about the size and actions of predators.  Sparrows in New Zealand have figured out how to open and close automatic glass doors.  Some birds make and use simple tools to retrieve food.  A crow held a sharp stick in his beak and, armed with this weapon, flew in hot pursuit of a jay.  Some birds hide as many as 33,000 seeds, scattered across dozens of square miles, and can remember, months later, where to find them.  A mockingbird can learn as many as two hundred different songs, including those of other birds and those sung by humans, by practicing them over and over.  Bowerbirds carefully assemble and decorate artistic bowers, which they use to attract their mates.  Although scientists cannot completely explain how birds find their way during their long migrations, they have determined many possibilities, including birds’ orienting themselves by the North Star, their detailed memory of landscapes, and their awareness of smells, sounds, and the magnetic field.  Birds can reorient themselves when blown off-course by a hurricane or taken miles out of their way by researchers.

Since most of us sometimes forget where we put our car keys and may get lost easily without a GPS, these stories may be humbling!

This well-researched, easy-to-understand book is a wonderful read for bird-lovers.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)


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