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The Genius of Birds

Jennifer Ackerman

(London Times)

You can be beady eyed, a lame duck or bird brained. There is no shortage of avian insults, says the science journalist Jennifer Ackerman, but some of them may be compliments in disguise.

To be called bird brained should be seen as a good thing, she says. Birds are among the most intelligent species in the animal kingdom and their mental feats are comparable to those of primates. The Clark’s nutcracker, for instance, can hide up to 33,000 seeds across dozens of square miles and remember where it put them months later.

For too long, Ackerman rails, we have dismissed birds because they don’t have a cortex like our own. No more! The Genius of Birds is the case for their defence. In each chapter, Ackerman travels the world, meeting the scientists who are at the cutting edge of avian academia. She guides us through the different traits that have made birds so successful, from their wizardry with beaks to their social savviness or adaptive genius.

Ackerman has collected a wealth of fascinating anecdotes to bolster her point. The smartest bird, she says, is the New Caledonian crow. Its genius was made famous by one called “Betty”, reported to have bent a piece of wire into a hook to dig out some hard-to-reach food. Puzzle-solving abilities, an abstract understanding of what a tool does, along with a working memory, are all key indicators of “intelligence”.

Pigeons can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time. They can also “discriminate between painting styles” — cubist and impressionist paintings, for example.

Ackerman provides more examples of feathery genius. Mockingbirds can imitate as many as 200 songs. Do birds grieve? It’s possible. One researcher notes that a greylag goose that had lost its partner showed symptoms similar to that of bereaved young children: “The eyes sink deep into their sockets . . . the individual has an overall drooping experience, literally letting the head hang heavy.” Ackerman impresses us with the social skills of birds: “They eavesdrop. They cheat. They deceive and manipulate. They kidnap. They divorce. They display a strong sense of fairness. They give gifts . . .” Male kingfishers woo ladies with a fish they will swallow so they can present it to their prospective partner face first. Chickens form complex social relationships with hierarchies — literally a pecking order. Great tits form “complex association matrixes based on personality”. In other words they mate with like-minded types. Corvids excel at recognising fellow corvids, and humans. Ackerman tells of Bernd Heinrich’s research into bird recognition. He proved the point by attempting to conceal his identity from his subjects by wearing kimonos, wigs, sunglasses and changing his gait. It didn’t work. They identified him each time. The visual clues the birds use to recognise us are so diverse that a costume wasn’t enough to put them off.

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