“Bird brain,” Compliment or Insult?

The Genius of BirdsThe Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Animal intelligence fascinates me. Thus I’ve read about crows and Archie the African gray parrot, surprised to learn how much birds know. So glad my book group chose The Genius of Birds,  which surveys many studies, adds more bird species, and discusses the intelligent and the seemingly less intelligent. (She prefers words like “cognition” to lessen anthropomorphism,)

Ackerman looks for correlations: stress, absence of stress, long childhood, short. She looks at brain size and early on rejects it for number of neurons. Then later on she reports on studies that correlate traits and their absence with brain size without comment. It deserves comment.

Early chapters seem heavy on theory, and I almost lost interest. However, with “Technical Wizardry” the balance shifted to anecdote and summary of studies, and I was back on board. I found the chapter on vocal learning and area “dialects” especially interesting (maybe related to my prior interest in linguistics). Next to catch my attention was the chapter on mapping and the various theories about how it works.

I also appreciated the author’s comments about our tendency to be interested in mental activity that is like human thought, though the she says that mapping , so different from human orientation, is gaining study.

The ending chapter is especially timely with its discussion of climate change as a challenge to bird behavior–timing of migration, of nesting etc. Some birds will probably adapt quickly enough, some will not.

Throughout, the author is careful not to oversimplify, to note remaining questions, partial theories needing fuller development, and differences of opinion.

Worth a read while waiting for fabric to arrive.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to ““Bird brain,” Compliment or Insult?

  1. I’m reading a similar-sounding book, Super Navigators, about how animals manage to travel thousands of miles and end up where they need to be. It’s interesting, if a little heavy on details of one experiment after another..

  2. I love watching youtube videos of the crows or some of the rainforest birds (gray parrots I think) solving problems. They are amazing probem solvers! I should be so quick. =)

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