You may be surprised to learn a new definition for the old insult “bird brain”. It turns out that birds are incredibly intelligent creatures. Recently crows made headlines on the New York Times for learning to make sophisticated tools from memory. This month, a paper was published on scientists’ quest to understand bird conversation. But in 2016, when Ackerman published her book, scientists had only been toeing the boundary line of understanding avian intelligence. Now, the subject fascinates the public as much as the scientists who study it.
Ackerman’s book is well-written and well-informed. Her tone is equal parts amused and fascinated as she dialogues with ornithologists and experts. She introduces her readers to the stars of avian intelligence: New Caledonian crows, parrots, ravens, and my personal favorite, the bowerbird. Bowerbirds are the aesthetics of the avian world. The males create ornate, decorative nests in which they seduce a potential mate. Female bowerbirds are notoriously picky. Males hand-select colorful objects they arrange to impress females. Ackerman describes this unique behavior in such a captivating way that I just had to look up pictures of bowerbird nests.
The Genius of Birds explores the rich and diverse characteristics of avian intelligence, from language and birdsong to courting behavior and homing instinct. Ackerman presents the bird not as the dumb creature it has been thought of for centuries (evoking terms such as bird brain, etc), but as a brilliant and misunderstood creature that we have yet to fully understand. She focuses on present understanding of birds in comparison to past misconceptions. Although I would have enjoyed a more thorough glimpse into history, as I enjoy science books that move from past to present, Ackerman does a great job of focusing on the present circumstances; what do we know, and what do we have left to learn?
Her book isn’t particularly moving or emotionally-provoking, but it is a thorough account of a fascinating subject. She is careful to quote scientists who warn against anthropomorphism, but it often feels as if she is bestowing her own anthropomorphic thoughts on the birds she observes. I think that this is actually an effective way for her to engage with non-scientific audiences and those who are emotionally invested in birds, but for those looking for a strictly professional and scientific glimpse into bird brains, the book may fall short in that it lacks a serious tone. That said, her writing is fun and engaging, and she puts a special emphasis on puns (for those who enjoy bird puns, you’ll find yourself giggling quite a bit).
The Genius of Birds is a New York Times bestseller for a reason – it’s educational, fascinating, and a wonderful example of engaging storytelling. It is especially wonderful for those who don’t know anything about birds but want to know more about their intelligence, behaviors, and characteristics. Ackerman’s book is charming and worth reading — and if you’re like me, by the time you’ve finished reading you’ll want to watch Planet Earth again for that cute bird with the blue face on its feathers dancing for a potential mate.
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