The Genius of Birds  – ★★★★
November is a “Non-Fiction” month, so I am trying to read more non-fiction books. Nature books are something I have been neglecting for some years now, so I have picked up Ackerman’s 2016 bestseller The Genius of Birds. Birds are some of the most remarkable animals on earth, but they have also been very misunderstood and it was only in the second half of the previous century that the scientific community had finally started realising their full complexity and intelligence. Now, in lists (for example, see list 1 and list 2) of the most intelligent animals in the world, birds (parrots, crows and pigeons) take their places alongside such animals as chimpanzees, gorillas, dolphins and octopuses. Some birds are capable of inventing new solutions to problems, making and using tools, leading active social lives, recognising themselves in a mirror, remembering people or places they have not seen in months or years, and reproducing up to sixty different songs which they have heard only a few times. Ackerman’s book explores the technical, inventive, musical, artistic, spatial and social abilities of birds, opening up a side of birds and their intelligence you never knew existed.
Through scientific theories, research, history and anecdotal evidence, Ackerman introduces us to some of the most remarkable birds on the planet, for example, to a New Caledonian crow, that has great inventive abilities and can craft tools which even a chimpanzee may not manage; to an African grey parrot, a bird that is a remarkable talker and collaborator; to a mockingbird, that has outstanding vocal imitation skills, and to a pigeon, capable of covering distances of up to 1.800 km with numerous and random disturbances on their route without getting lost (hence, they were used in wars to relay vital intelligence). The chapter “Four Hundred Tongues”, where Ackerman discusses the vocal virtuosity of birds is definitely one of the highlights. In this chapter, the author clearly states that vocal learning/imitation is rather rare in the animal kingdom and that song-learning requites a complex cognition, before providing a step-by-step guide to a young bird’s song-learning. The research says that, as we learn our first language by imitating our parents, so do birds engage in a very similar process of vocal learning by listening to other adult birds and then practising their sounds on their own. An African grey parrot is, of course, the bird that is capable of imitating human speech (though, for a parrot, not all letters and words can be learnt so easily). Ackerman also says that “why any creature would devote so much time and mental energy for imitating other species and random sounds remains a conundrum” [Ackerman, Corsair, 2016: 172]. Sexual selection is probably the main driving force.
“A Mapping Mind” is another fascinating chapter where the author talks about the remarkable navigational abilities of birds. Sensing, learning and building a cognitive map are now all thought to be involved in a bird’s superior spatial awareness, alongside their internal clocks and reliance on the sun [Ackerman, Corsair, 2016: 229, 240]. Some also suggest that they use an “odour” map, electro-magnetic fields and infrasound.
The unfortunate aspect is that some chapters are much more interesting than others, and there is quite a bit of repetition in this book, especially when it discusses the brains of birds and how the size of their brains may not correspond to the degree of intelligence. Nevertheless, The Genius of Birds is still a persuasive account on the nature of birds, which, undoubtedly, will make you look at any bird in a completely different light.