Fierce Intelligence: A Review of The Genius of Birds

The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman Penguin Press, 2016 Source: Purchased Available: Amazon
The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman
Penguin Press, 2016
Source: Purchased
Available: Amazon

I frequently prefer birds over humans; they disappoint me far less.

Yes, they fight and they can be brutal—ever hear a blue jay take out a nest of baby birds? It’s a horrifying sound, even if not a regular occurrence.

But birds also cooperate and warn each other of predators—the job of the chickadee. Birds are diverse and surprising in ways humans are not.

Also, they let me be a voyeur into their strange world and take photos for Instagram for the small price of food.

Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds is another route to that world. Between the covers is a fascinating look at the bird brain, showing that smaller brains do not necessarily lack intelligence.

Take the nutcracker, for example:

“To survive the harsh winters…a single nutcracker will gather more than thirty thousand pine seeds in a single summer, carrying up to one hundred seeds at a time in a special pouch under its tongue. These it buries in up to five thousand difference caches scattered throughout a territory of dozens, even hundreds, of square miles. Then later it finds the scattered treasures….they can remember them for as long as nine months…

And those small chickadees? They are fearless watchers.

According to Ackerman, “chickadees use their calls like language, complete with syntax that can generate an open-ended number of unique call types. They use some calls to convey their location to another bird or to twitter news of a tasty treat; others, to warn of predators—both the type of beast and the magnitude of its threat.”

And crows, particularly new Caledonian crows, are extremely good at memory, problem solving, and even engage in play for the sake of play.

Crows are hyper-intelligent birds, giving them the nickname “feathered primate.” New Caldonian crows, says Ackerman, are a good example of this. They are not as versatile as apes, but they “craft their tools with precision from a range of materials” and they “innovate.” They are capable of using “tools in a sequence” (see the video below of 007, mentioned in the book). “And perhaps most impressively,” says Ackerman, “they make and use hook tools—the only species other than humans to do so.”

So, if you want to be mesmerized by the intelligence of birds, pick up The Genius of Birds. It is a beautiful book—very approachable—and rich in information. It will leave you with a new appreciation of birds and a respect for their complicated world.

The Problem Solving Skills of 007