Review: The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman

Published by Penguin Press

5 stars


Birds are astonishingly intelligent creatures. In fact, according to revolutionary new research, some birds rival primates and even humans in their remarkable forms of intelligence.  Like humans, many birds have enormous brains relative to their size. Although small, bird brains are packed with neurons that allow them to punch well above their weight.

In The Genius of Birds, acclaimed author Jennifer Ackerman explores the newly discovered brilliance of birds and how it came about. 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 revolutionizing 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 where it put them several months later; the mockingbirds and thrashers, species that can store 200 to 2,000 different songs in a brain a thousand times smaller than ours; the well-known pigeon, which knows where it’s going, even thousands of miles from familiar territory; and the New Caledonian crow, an impressive bird that makes its own tools.

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 display a strong sense of fairness. They give gifts. They play keep-away and tug-of-war. They tease. They share. They cultivate social networks. They vie for status. They kiss to console one another. They teach their young. 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. Incredibly informative and beautifully written, The Genius of Birds richly celebrates the triumphs of these surprising and fiercely intelligent creatures.




**Thank you to NetGalley, the publisher and author for a complimentary copy of this title in exchange for an honest review**

Now there’s a synopsis and a half! Also, can you think of a single more delectable publisher for this book than Penguin press? (Not even remotely relevant to the review, it just made me smile)

This book is a perfect blend of science, references and anecdotes. It’s packed full of information about the different aspects of avian intelligence, but it manages to keep it light and entertaining so you don’t feel like you’re reading a science journal (I did my time in University studying Zoology, I appreciate that good science is still good even if it isn’t entertaining but I also really appreciate science being teamed up with a talented author).

Ackerman is really enthusiastic about her subject matter and she gets you caught up in it, birds really are inspirational and beautiful in all the ways they’ve adapted to life in the modern world. The book is quirky and the anecdotes make the scientific content really easy to understand for anyone with even the most casual of interests in birds.

The overall theme of the book is about the intelligence of birds – how it can be measured, how it can be compared between species and how their intelligence has evolved over millennia to get them where they are today.

I haven’t reviewed many non-fiction books so I’m going to go through this chapter by chapter to let you know what you can expect:

Chapter 1.

The first chapter explores how the size of the brain relates to intelligence in birds, there are loads of examples that demonstrate that brain size can be related to different traits in birds, but questions whether or not those traits are ‘intelligent’ or not by definition.

Chapter 2.

My favourite fact in this chapter was the idea of pedomorphosis – essentially that birds are fluffy baby dinosaurs with giant heads. The idea being that the small bodies help them fly and do birdy shit but the big heads give them space for a proportionally large head and eyeballs.



Chapter 3.

Birds use tools. Like feathery monkeys.
I find this absolutely fascinating, different birds in different spots about the globe have figured out pretty complicated puzzles and how to use tools to help them get what they want. If this isn’t a sign of intelligence as we understand it, I don’t know what is!

Chapter 4.

Do social habits make birds intelligent? Some species teach/coach their young so they have all the skills and knowledge they’ll need to survive into adulthood, the longer the juvenile stage of the bird, the larger the brain of the species, it seems.

Chapter 5.

Birds can learn and remember a huge number of calls and songs, some can even imitate non birdy sounds. Again, some have greater talent in this area than others so this chapter considers whether or not this makes them ‘intelligent’.

Parrot, Claw, Foot, Ara, Animal, Bird, Parroting

Chapter 6.

Navigation and migration is something that birds are famous for and there are several theories on how they manage it – magnetic field vision, magnetic hearing, scent detection. This chapter explores those theories but at the end of the day we still don’t know exactly how it is that birds migrate to the same place every year across the world and still make it back in time for summer.

Sundial, Mobile Sundial, Gauge, Technology, Brass

Chapter 7.

Some birds are just cool. They know just how to navigate this crazy world of ours and roll with the punches that humanity aims at them.

What I learnt in this chapter is that sparrows are especially cool: they steal feathers from a pigeon’s arse while it’s still living so that they can line their nests. Some city sparrows also use cigarette butts in their nests because they repel parasites. That nugget of wisdom blew my mind.

It’s a fun and hugely educational read, if you have an interest in wildlife and animal behaviour – please give this book your time!


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