Book Review: The Genius of Birds
by Jennifer Ackerman
Penguin Press, 2016
Birds don’t know it (fortunately, or the rest of us would never hear the end of it), but they’ve been slandered with imputations of stupidity for centuries. Despite the increasing energy of ornithologists everywhere, the term “bird brain” still comes readily to hand when an agitated person wants to describe a moron.
Long-time nature writer Jennifer Ackerman knows better than anybody the stubborn inertia she’s working against when she titles a book The Genius of Birds, and she’s well aware of how the reasoning goes on the “bird brain”-favoring side of things:
The avian brain has no cortex like ours, where all the “smart” stuff happens. Birds had minimal noggins for good reason, we thought: to allow for airborne ways; to defy gravity; to hover, arabesque, dive, soar for days on end, migrate thousands of miles, and maneuver in tight spaces. For their mastery of the air, it seemed, birds paid a heavy cognitive penalty.
The key flaw in such a view, obviously, is that it’s blindingly species-centric, not to mention anatomically provincial. It assumes that higher-level complex thinking can only happen in one way; it demands a uniform cerebral chemistry and architecture as a basis for all advanced cognition. The reality is increasingly revealing itself as far more complicated.
The reality is that, human-style cortex or not, birds are capable of a wide and stunning array of intellectual feats of precisely the kind science has long reserved as the sole province of humans – or, grudgingly, humans and great apes. That birds communicate in exuberant and highly detailed ways has been known anecdotally for millennia, but as animal behaviorists turn concerted inquiry and open minds to the avian world, it becomes obvious that birds do a good deal more than simply chirp. They teach; they make elaborate tools; they display ample amounts of self-awareness; they understand guilt, sarcasm, gratitude, and altruism. They are alien minds but not lesser ones.
Ackerman is a spirited narrator of all these revelations. Her portrait of the bird world is unfailingly peppy, even when what she’s describing isn’t particularly brainy:
Keas also love to horseplay. An invitation to another bird occurs in the form of a cock of the head and a kind of stiff-legged sidling up to a potential play partner. The partners parry and duel with their beaks, ducking, thrusting, ducking again. They tussle, lock bills, bite, push with their feet, roll on their backs while squealing and waving their feet, and stand on each other’s stomachs. There are no winners or losers. (Everyone gets a trophy.)
Naturally, not all birds are deep thinkers. Ackerman relates encounters with some species that are, at best, the basset hounds of the avian worlds. And a book like this would scarcely be possible without a villain-bird, although in this case the scapegoat, the common house sparrow, is at times damned with faint praise:
The house sparrow may be rightly branded as a thug or feathered rat, stigmatized as pernicious, even murderous. But whatever people say, the bird is a superb invader, skilled at ensconcing itself nearly everywhere it goes. Of thirty-nine known house sparrow introductions, thirty-three have been successful.
You can almost hear the Horst Wessel song in the background, can’t you? And yet if the dodo had been able to ensconce itself nearly everywhere it went, we’d be tripping over them today.
But no amount of sparrow-maligning can tarnish the triumph-story of this book. The Genius of Birds is an elegantly persuasive (and elegantly presented: the US cover features a lovely illustration by Eunike Nugroho) call to re-think mankind’s comfortable illusions of its own intellectual supremacy. It should put “bird brain” to rest once and for all.