The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman. NY: Penguin, 2016
How smart are birds? Are they bird-brains in the derogatory sense? Not all of them, according to Ackerman. She writes about New Caledonian crows that have been observed making and using tools, like hooks to get at food in places too deep or narrow for their beaks to reach. Very few species do that. It was not that long ago that a dividing line between humans and other animals was our ability to make tools. Now in addition to some other primates we must add the crows. They have also learned how to crack nuts open, or drop them in the street so cars will crush the shell allowing the birds to reach the nutmeat inside.
Male bowerbirds build such elaborate nests that they were sometimes thought to have been made and discarded by humans. Ravens gather around their own dead. The directional abilities of homing pigeons are well-known but Ackerman finds new things to say about this bird and other birds’ amazing ability to find their way around and what recent research has discovered.
The book also discusses evolution, genetics, and learning strategies. She finds that birds with the longest childhoods and those with more safe time to “play” show greater mental abilities. The research on how birds learn mating songs is fascinating. Her writing is engaging and provides a great deal of information without being too dense or obtuse. This is a wonderful book to read to learn more about our feathered friends and neighbors. It was a New York Times bestseller and one of the Wall Street Journal’s 10 best non-fiction books of 2016.