Monday, November 23, 2020

The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman (author), Margaret Strom (narrator)

Highbridge Audio, April 2016

"Birdbrain" has long been a term that meant stupid or foolish. Birds have tiny brains, therefore they must be pretty stupid, right?

This book is about just how wrong that perception is.

Ackerman uses both personal anecdotes and solid scientific research from a variety of researchers to show us the real intelligence and variety of birds.

Crows and ravens get a fair amount of recognition as brighter than most birds, though they're also often considered loud and obnoxious. They can do some impressively complex things. New Caledonian crows, for instance can make compound tools, which an ability pretty much limited to them and humans.

But as intriguing as crows are, Ackerman talks about a wide variety of birds and their skills. Mockingbirds are notable for imitating the songs of other birds, animals, and even the sounds of human machinery, but recent research shows that they learn, and practice, and ultimately perfect their songs in a process very much like how humans learn language. The same is true of many songbirds; different populations of the same species will have songs that are perhaps similar, but not identical. If a male from one area finds his way into another area with a different "dialect," the local females tend to find him less attractive--perhaps because, being obviously not a local, he may not be as good a forager in local conditions.

Bower birds build elaborate and colorful structures that aren't nests; they're solely for courtship purposes. Females evaluate the bowers carefully; they visit several, repeatedly, before choosing a male to breed with. This highlights two important point. First, the males aren't born knowing how to build bower that will win the favor of a female who will breed with him; they're born with the inclination, but it takes both observation and practice to master the skill successfully. Secondly, the females are able to keep rather impressive mental maps in their tiny heads, enabling them to retain the locations of several different candidates who may be scattered over large distances.

Ackerman also takes us through the complexities of avian navigation, an area where the humble pigeon shines bright.

I'm barely touching on the fascinating information in this audiobook. Highly recommended.

I bought this audiobook.

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