In The Genius of Birds , acclaimed author Jennifer Ackerman explores the newly discovered brilliance of birds. Read more...
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Publisher: HighBridge Audio$34.99
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In The Genius of Birds, acclaimed author Jennifer Ackerman explores the newly discovered brilliance of birds. As she travels around the world to the most cutting-edge frontiers of research--the distant laboratories of Barbados and New Caledonia, the great tit communities of the United Kingdom and the bowerbird habitats of Australia, the ravaged mid-Atlantic coast after Hurricane Sandy and the warming mountains of central Virginia and the western states--Ackerman not only tells the story of the recently uncovered genius of birds but also delves deeply into the latest findings about the bird brain itself that are shifting our view of what it means to be intelligent.
Consider, as Ackerman does, the Clark's nutcracker, a bird that can hide as many as 30,000 seeds over dozens of square miles and remember several months later where it put them, or the mockingbirds and thrashers, species that can store 200 to 2,000 different songs in a brain a thousand times smaller than ours.
But beyond highlighting how birds use their unique genius in technical ways, Ackerman points out the impressive social smarts of birds. They deceive and manipulate. They eavesdrop. They give gifts. They kiss to console one another. They blackmail their parents. They alert one another to danger. They summon witnesses to the death of a peer. They may even grieve.
This elegant scientific investigation and travelogue weaves personal anecdotes with fascinating science. Ackerman delivers an extraordinary story that will both give readers a new appreciation for the exceptional talents of birds and let them discover what birds can reveal about our changing world. Richly informative and beautifully written, The Genius of Birds celebrates the triumphs of these surprising and fiercely intelligent creatures.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-05-02
- Reviewer: Staff
Popular science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold) puts paid to the notion of being birdbrained with this survey of the observational and experimental evidence for impressive bird cognition. She explores birds' capacities for tool use, socialization, navigation, mimicry, discrimination, and possibly even theory of mind. Ackerman interviews specialists without overindulging in research travelogue, keeping centered on her feathered subjects rather than on the human interactions, and urges against anthropomorphizing bird behavior, correlating specific behaviors to generalized intelligence, or benchmarking the value of avian mental skills to that of humans. But her most interesting bits of trivia play to that urge: undergraduates who fail at mental simulations at which some birds succeed, bowerbirds trained to distinguish good human art from bad, Thomas Jefferson's mockingbird singing "popular songs of the day," and pigeons learning to open automatic cafeteria doors. Though Ackerman's focus is mainly ethological, she also speculates on the possible relationships between complex task completion and evolutionary fitness. This light popular science read doesn't present much new framing or insight; Ackerman seeks out current research to discover a few surprises, such as a possible role for olfactory cues in navigation, but doesn't point to or create any big conceptual shifts. (Apr.)
Take your reading to new heights
Spring has arrived, and along with it comes a flock of books about our feathered friends. Here are three new titles that bird watchers will find especially intriguing.
Jennifer Ackerman, longtime nature writer and contributor to Scientific American, thinks it’s time to ditch the term “bird brain.” In The Genius of Birds, she offers compelling evidence that birds are far smarter than we previously thought. In fact, she writes, new research has found “bird species capable of mental feats comparable to those [of] primates.” Birds can recognize human faces, use geometry to navigate, learn new skills from one another (like how to open milk bottles) and even work puzzles. The author travels from the South Pacific—home of the world’s smartest bird, the New -Caledonian crow—to rural China as she explores the surprising cognitive abilities of birds. Ackerman is a pro at parsing scientific concepts in an accessible style, and her lyrical writing underscores her appreciation for the beauty and adaptability of birds.
While bird brains are the focus of many new studies, there’s nothing more beautiful or delicate than a brightly colored bird’s egg. In The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg, ornithologist Tim Birkhead deconstructs every part of the egg to reveal how these small survival pods are “perfect in so many different ways.” From the shell (composed of upright crystals “packed against each other like a stack of fence posts”) to the albumen (the “absolutely remarkable, mysterious stuff” that most of us call the white part), the elements are described here in exquisite detail. Like a bird watcher who spots a rare specimen, the author shows palpable (and charming) excitement for his subject throughout, never losing his sense of wonder and admiration for nature’s “ingenious construction” of the egg.
IN THE NEST
A contributing editor of Bird Watcher’s Digest, Julie Zickefoose has a particular fascination with baby birds and enjoys painting these scrawny, screeching creatures from the moment they hatch to the day they leave the nest as fledglings. Baby Birds: An Artist Looks into the Nest offers a rare and meticulously chronicled portrait of baby birds’ day-to-day development, with the author’s lovely watercolor paintings adding a vivid visual dimension. In her introduction, Zickefoose describes Baby Birds as “an odd sort of book, like a Victorian-era curiosity.” Fans of the rediscovered 1970s bestseller The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady will happily agree.