Corsair, (and in the USA, Penguin) 2016

Hbk, 416 pp 

ISBN: 978-1472114358 


Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain


One of the problems about being human is that we tend to measure everything in terms of ourselves. For example, human intelligence tests are designed only to measure the intelligence of our own species. This is judged on the basis of certain abilities that humans have, in a greater or lesser degree, such as logical deductive reasoning and a facility with language and numbers. If you were to test a young cuckoo for those abilities, the poor bird would score low. Hence the pejorative term, ‘bird-brain.’ But what if you tested a human child on his or her ability to find the way, alone, from here to Africa with no help or guidance of any kind from anyone at all? The cuckoo would ace the test. The human would flunk it.

In this fascinating and intensively-researched book, Jennifer Ackerman delves deeply into the minds and abilities of our feathered companions and reveals some of the remarkable discoveries that have been made in recent years about the true nature and extent of avian intelligence. Once we learn to stop defining intelligence in terms of what we excel at and study birds on their own terms, there is a wealth of fascinating information to be gained.

As she travels the world in pursuit of the latest findings, Ackerman meets a wide range of birds of all shapes and sizes and proclivities, such as the remarkably skilful New Caledonia crows who make and use their own tools. She learns that north American jays and nutrackers can hide many thousands of food items over dozens of square miles and not only remember exactly where they all are but keep in mind which one is where so that the more perishable ones can be eaten first. She discovers songbirds who can store 200 to 2,000 different songs in a brain a thousand times smaller than ours and hears about parrots who can not only use human language but use it creatively and with perfect logic. She finds to her amazement that some Australian bower birds, once they have gained enough experience to build a good bower, purposely employ the rules of perspective to charm prospective mates with their consummate artistry. She tells us the story of some sparrows whose impressive adaptability enabled them to learn, within just a few weeks, how to open an automatic door by positioning themselves over the sensor so that they could fly in and out.

This fascinating book reveals that not only are birds a lot smarter than we ever gave them credit for, (e.g. pigeons can recognize individual human faces and are on a par with primates in numerical competence), they are smart in ways that we cannot even understand yet. As Ackerman says: They are one of nature’s great success stories, inventing new strategies for survival, their own distinctive brands of ingenuity that, in some respects at least, seem to far outpace our own.

The book also looks at some generalities. Such as why are some birds better toolmakers than others, why are some species more flexible and adaptive in their habits than others and how their biology—particularly their neurophysiology—correlates with their behaviour. For there are indeed a lot of differences, not only between species but between individuals. Just like us, birds have their distinct personalities, their funny little ways and their special talents. Which, as the author points out, may explain why, like us, they often do better problem-solving in groups than on their own.

Finally, it takes a hard look at the future we are still thoughtlessly creating. As rising temperatures push mountain-dwelling species towards higher altitudes, some have already reached the peaks and can go no further. Based on what we have learned so far about avian adaptability, this book makes some grim guesses about how many species we are doomed to lose as the inevitability of climate change looms ever closer and the woods begin to fall silent.