Until they are annihilated by science, our assumptions seem so simple, rigorous, even unassuming. Birds, for example, are obviously incapable of “thought.” After all, the tiny brains, the jerky movements – they’re too twitchy to have anything resembling our own internal hamster-wheel minds. Jennifer Ackerman delightfully transforms our long-held default perceptions of birds in The Genius of Birds with lovely, lively prose, and great stories about science and scientists. Since birds are pretty much everywhere you look, this book will change the way you see the world around you.
Ackerman lays out her case in the Introduction to the book, so thoroughly and enjoyably that you might be tempted to think she’d be hard-pressed to outdo herself. Resist that temptation. Ackerman begins by reminding us how our prejudice against the very possibility of bird intelligence is reflected in our language, from “lame ducks” to “eating crow” to “bird brains.” Then the science from the last two decades comes to our rescue, and Ackerman introduces us to the varieties of birds that, once you observe closely, are clearly doing amazing things with their brains. Ackerman’s genius is for finding the great stories and characters who are reshaping not just our understanding of birds, but of thought and cognition as well.
She begins with the rock star of the bird intelligence world, the New Caledonian Crow, remarkable creature that can solve a logic puzzle that would challenge a five year-old human. From there, she head to the Barbados, where we meet Louis Lefebrve, who invented the first scale of intelligence for birds. Her portraits of the scientists and the birds they study are perfectly balanced and paced. She weaves together different strands and different birds, even as she digs down into what precisely we mean by intelligence. As she points out, behaviors that look intelligent may be the result of layered simple processes. For example, the stunning displays of flock behavior, when we see birds move in groups with amazing precision were once thought to be an indicator that the birds might somehow be telepathic. It turns out that they’re not keeping track of the entire flock; rather it’s just the closest seven (or so) fellow flyers.
As Ackerman demonstrates the many ways in which birds are in fact using their brains, she also explores the neuroscience that shows how brain size is not as directly proportional to intelligence as we are inclined to intuit. Indeed, some birds have incredibly densely packed neurons. And others, many, are using their brains in a manner that we could not hope to equal. “Caching behavior” is the name given to birds’ ability to hide food in thousands of spots over many miles and find them all. It’s a feat of memory that is simply alien to humans.
The sum of these engrossing stories of scientists and the flying aliens they are studying is nothing less than transformative. The ubiquity of birds ensures that everywhere we look, we’ll see them anew, not as large insects (probably next to be revised!), but as superbly-adapted alien intelligences, with minds so different that both humans – and our science – are just now catching up.
Jennifer Ackerman’s art – and science – is evident both in her book, and in our conversations. She is a natural storyteller, and in The Genius of Birds, she’s found the perfect venue for her talents. You can hear our lightning round conversation by following this link, or just listen below.
If you prefer to let your mind take flight, here’s a link to the in-depth interview, or fasten your seat belt and listen below.