Call Me Bird-Brained and Other Takeaways from The Genius of Birds

pg. 38: “Other examples involved ingenious new ways of getting at food…and one of Lefebvre’s favorites was the report of vultures in Zimbabwe that perched on barb-wired fences near minefields during the war of liberation, waiting for gazelles and other grazers to wander in and detonate the explosives. It gave the birds a ready-made meal already pulverized.”

At some point in my childhood I was told that birds were dirty and carried parasites. Fearing I would get worms from discarded feathers and empty nests that had blown from our trees, a curiosity for birds never fully developed while growing up.

My lukewarm interest peaked in high school when my friend’s cockatoo would mimic the sound of their dial-up internet. (If you were fortunate enough to be born in a time when you didn’t have to share a phone line to illegally download music from Napster, this is the sound you are missing out on.)

Even while showcasing this incredible feat of vocal achievement, I wasn’t so much struck by its intelligence as I was inspired to try and get her cuckatoo to repeat swear words.

So it was a surprise when I found myself in Waterstones a few weeks ago purchasing  the 2017 New York Times best seller, The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman. Since finishing this book, my entire perspective has been changed. There is a new sense of awe and respect that I’m embarrassed to have just now embraced for our feathered friends.

Without being overly academic, Ackerman offers information about some of the world’s smartest birds, their brain and neuronal structure and how we could learn about our own evolution by studying birds’ behavior. The tone is friendly and even though the information is in-depth, it doesn’t feel like a chore to read.

The chapters are divided by information on:

  • the structure of birds’ brains
  • various birds’ technical abilities
  • social skills
  • “vocal virtuosity”
  • birds as artists
  • “spacial (and temporal) ingenuity”
  • the ability for birds to adapt to new environments and situations 

Before you feel pressured to add another book to your ever-growing reading list, you can also skim through a few of my favorite highlights below. Who knows, maybe a few of these fun facts will help you win a pub quiz, or at the very least, you can wow people with your knowledge of New Caledonian Crows over a couple drinks.

Fun Facts About How Freakin’ Smart Birds Can Be:


After searching 75 years-worth of bird journals for reports of unusual or novel behaviour in birds, scientists found more than 2,300 examples including:

  • A great Skua in the Antarctic hanging out with newborn seal pups and sipping milk from their lactating mothers.
  • Several Green-backed Herons using insects as bait, “delicately placing them on the surface of the water waiting for fish to bite.”
  • “A report in Zimbabwe of vultures who would perch on a barbwire fence in a certain minefield, waiting for animals to detonate the bombs.” Talk about working smarter, not harder.

Chickadees have a “sophisticated and exacting system of communication of any land animal, using their calls like language (complete with syntax that can generate open-ended unique call types.)” These agile birds also can warn the crew of predators in the area, and depending on the number of “dees” they include, how dangerous the situation. 

Oh, and they can remember thousands of hidden food stashes using a brain the size of a pea. I can’t even remember someone’s name two seconds after we’re introduced.

Perhaps that was what was so incredible about Ackerman’s information. These birds were operating on a brain that was the size of my pinky fingernail. The level of efficiency and complexity of brain function at this proportion is astonishing to me. Mother Nature is a serious artist.

After studying fourteen species of songbirds and eleven species of parrots, Brazilian neuroscientist Suzana Herulano-Houzel and her colleagues determined the number of neurons and other cells in their brains had neuron densities similar to PRIMATES. In Corvids and Parrots, the numbers were even higher.

Birds’ Tools and “Technical Wizardry”

birds-tools Photo by Hossein Ghaem on Unsplash

The number of neurons is fascinating, but it can be hard to fully grasp what that means and how it relates to intelligence. When Ackerman began introducing studies done on the use of tools, though, I started to read entire pages from the book out loud to my husband in excitement.

For example, Caledonian crows make “elaborate tools from sticks, leaf edges and other materials which they use to wrangle grubs and insects from burrows and cavities. These crows even travel with their tools, suggesting they value them.” The fact that they keep their tools with them made me feel a bit more connected to their species. I too, travel with my valuable tools despite the annoyance of removing my computer every time I go through airport security.

To get an idea of how amazing this toolmaking ability is, scientists know of only four groups of animals that craft their own tools: humans, chimps, orangutans and New Caledonian crows.

“Carrion crows in Japan have been filmed placing nuts in the crosswalks of a street during a red light and then flying off waiting for the light to turn green and traffic to resume and crush the nut. If the traffic misses the nut, the crow will wait for the light to turn red again and re-position the nut.”

Twitter as a Whole New Social Meaning

two-birds Photo by Jonah Pettrich on Unsplash

This chapter opens up with the info bomb-drop that studies on bird colonies suggests that “some bird species have social lives nearly as complex as our own, which require some very sophisticated mental skills indeed.” In order to live as a community, these birds have to somehow manage relationships, know when to cooperate, compete and recognize fellow birds and where they lie on the hierarchy.

It’s not just within a bird’s species. Studies are showing this type of social awareness branching out to bird/human interactions as well.

Reciprocity in the form of gift-giving is common among certain birds, including crows. Leaving gifts suggests that crows understand past acts that have benefitted them and that they anticipate future reward. I’ll be honest, I have considered leaving some bread out for a local bird at the cafe where I work to see if it brings me something shiny.

Studies have also been done showing that pigeons and crows in urban areas are able to process facial recognition of those humans that offer up crumbs of bread and those that have a history of kicking and shooing the birds away. And next time you annoyingly dismiss the flocks of pigeons hovering around a public space, consider that domestic pigeon is “capable of counting, grasping the arithmetic of loss and gain and learning abstract rules about numbers.”

It was also interesting to read about experiments with Magpies who have shown signs of self-awareness, currently thought to only exist in humans and a few social mammals. I went down a rabbit hole of questions about whether certain birds have confidence issues, what would make a bird self-conscious and if they were introduced to social media, would levels of depression spike in Magpie communities.

“According to James Goodson, the circuits in the brains of birds that control social behavior are much like the circuits in our own brains. The circuits are old – so old they are common to all vertebrates, dating back something like 450 million years, to the common ancestor of birds, mammals and sharks.”

“Vocal Virtuosity” of Birds (a Favorite Chapter)

ravi-shekhar-444365-unsplash Photo by Ravi Shekhar on Unsplash

This was one of my favorite chapters in the book. It not only put into perspective the complexity of learning a language, but that vocal learning is actually pretty rare to find. In fact, this ability is currently found only in parrots, hummingbirds, songbirds, the bellbirds, a few marine animals like dolphins and whales, bats and one primate – humans.

Scientists studying songbirds are hoping to also be able to use their findings to help understand the process of vocal learning and language acquisition in humans. This is because songbirds go through the same process of vocal learning that people do.

Like humans, baby birds listen, experiment, practice and perfect their vocal skills to be able to effectively communicate. Birds can even have “speech defects” like stuttering, similar to humans.

There were so many interesting facts in this chapter. One in particular that I was touched by was the importance of male mentors in the lives of Zebra Finch hatchlings. The male Zebra Finch learns a single love song from his father or other males in his first 90 days after hatching and faithfully repeats that songs throughout his life. Equally as impressive is the Swamp Sparrow’s 1,500-year-lineage of the same song carried through the generations in almost perfect replication. 

Song birds also have the ability to be “bilingual” depending on where they migrate. Marsh warblers mimic birdsongs from Europe, but also from birds in Uganda where they winter.  Like the pronunciation, spelling and vocabulary of our human language, birds’ dialects may also drift over time. Savannah Sparrows, for example, sing distinctly different songs today than their ancestors did 30 years ago.

There is a case where a Crusted Lark in Southern Germany learned to imitate the four whistling notes a shepherd used to work his herding dogs. The dogs instantly obeyed. These calls spread to the other larks, creating a little pocket of “catchphrases” amongst the birds in the area.

Designer Birds and Can I Hire One to Decorate My Apartment?

birds-nest Photo by Soner Eker on Unsplash

Building a nest is no joke. I took this skillset for granted watching birds gather twigs and grasses and then disappearing into the treetops. However, scientists have all sorts of evidence to show that nest building is more than an innate skill. It requires learning and memory, experience and coordination. The Long-tailed Tit’s nest, for example, is the result of a cooperative effort between the members of a pair from the very start.

There seems to be an understanding of the importance of a healthy home when building nests as well. Just like me and my addiction to essential oils, there are birds that will find fresh yarrow, apple mint and lavender and use these herbs to protect their chicks from bacteria and parasites.

The practicality and strength of a nest is important, a skill that is learned, but what has always fascinated me most were the beautiful displays made by Bowerbirds.

Bowerbirds have been gifted large brains, long lives and extended periods of development (7 years to be exact!) Ackerman also writes that “they are the only animal on the planet, besides humans, known to use extravagant objects to lure mates.”

What I find the most fascinating is how this display of architecture developed through evolution, especially one that could be so subjective to the females’ preferences. Each male Bowerbird works from a design all his own, but what is consistent through all birds is the use of blue objects. Blue glass, flower petals, plastic, jewellery, keychains, these colorful touches are important to attracting a female. Interestingly, its a color us humans love as well.

Satin Bowerbirds must also show a balance between artistic ability, exceptional displays of song and dance and intelligence. Studies have shown that if a male doesn’t respond to the female Bowerbird’s cues as a result of over-aggressive behavior, she won’t choose him as a mate. This gave me a strange sense of hope that evolution is moving us toward something more than just physical markers as foundations of choosing a mate.

The Long-tailed Tit designs its nest as a flexible bag composed of mosses that form hooks, which are woven together with the silk hoops of spider egg cocoons to create a kind of velcro.

Birds Don’t Need Google Maps

migrating-birds-dusk Photo by Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash

As a traveler, navigating new towns, enduring long haul fights and adjusting to new time zones is part of the deal, but there are some birds that make my transatlantic flights look like a quick walk to the grocery store.

The tiny Blackpoll Warbler will migrate each autumn flying nonstop from New England and Eastern Canada to South America, racking up close to 1,700 miles in only 2-3 days. That is some serious mileage flight points I could use for my next trip.

Another boss in the world of migrating birds is the Artic Tern. Every year it flies from nesting grounds in Greenland and Iceland to its wintering grounds off the coast of Antartica, a roundtrip journey of almost 44,000 miles. To put this into perspective, in an average 30-year lifetime, a tern may fly the equivalent of three trips to the moon and back.

What is so mind-boggling to me about the birds’ global journeys is not just the physical strength and endurance required, but the ability to know where the hell they are going without Google Maps. When we consider how climate change, environmental degradation and ongoing urbanization can change the landscape, it must mean that birds are traveling with a sense of direction that is far more sophisticated than just noticing key landmarks.

The book touches on the possibility of birds using magnetic fields to orient themselves in their journeys, but it’s still not for certain how exactly birds can be so accurate in their epic migrations. Ackerman does offer another possible answer: the building of cognitive maps. In her book, she quotes Edward Tolman who talks about the importance of these cognitive maps in navigating space but also in social and emotional relationships. 

Humans build these maps as well. What I found interesting is how Tolman ties in the effect a cognitive map has on more than just cardinal directions. In the book, Ackerman writes “a narrow-minded map can create a perspective of fear while creating broader cognitive maps in the mind, that encompass bigger geographical boundaries and wider social scope, encourage empathy and understanding.”

This seems to support my belief that traveling and exploring new places and cultures is a tangible way to change perspectives and encourage positive growth. Developing cognitive maps gives both birds and humans a way to traverse the world effectively.

Female Cowbirds have a larger hippocampus than males and more spatial prowess since they need to find nests to lay their eggs. It suggests that superior spatial ability isn’t inherently male, but evolves in relation to the ecological demands of the brood parasitic way of reproducing.

The Evolution of a Bird Species Requires Adaptation

turkey-bird Photo by Artur Łuczka on Unsplash

Just like the final minutes in almost every episode of Planet Earth II, there was a somber reality check in the closing pages of The Genius of Birds. The effects of our growing human population is driving one in four species of birds to extinction. Interestingly, it seems to be the most highly specialized birds that are struggling the most. It prompted me to consider our own trajectory as a species in these challenging times.

Ackerman writes that the House Sparrow is the world’s most widely distributed wild bird, with a global breeding population of around 540 million. There are a lot of factors that contribute to this sparrow’s success, but adaptability ranks at the top. Their social flocks could also contribute to the world-wide distribution of their species.

This is because while high intelligence is important, it isn’t always “universally advantageous” as Ackerman writes. Just like any talent, there are advantages and disadvantages. Bold birds are quick to explore but might compromise their accuracy for making a correct decision as a result of their priority on speed. Even cleverness can be a challenge when it comes to “reversal learning” when compared to more cautious and slower problem solvers.

A new study comparing the genomes of the turkey suggest that genetically-speaking, the turkey is closer to its dinosaur ancestors than any other bird is; its chromosomes have undergone fewer changes than other birds since the days of feathered dinosaurs.

So what does this all mean, and how can we learn from the ongoing evolution of so many bird species? Ackerman asks the question: “Why do both types persist within a population? Perhaps because they do better in the environment in different years.”

The fascinating studies and experiments shared in Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds is a timely reminder of the importance in honoring the many ways we can define “intelligence.” Whether it is cognitive ability, vocal virtuosity, spatial awareness or social intelligence, these are all important traits in their own right. Without the intelligence to adapt, however, these skills are in danger of being lost in a species extinction – including our own.


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