by Jennifer Ackerman
Birds are smart. They can be resourceful, curious, inventive and opportunistic. It is true that many show limited responses to novel situations, or avoid them altogether- living in a narrow band of specific habitat where their needs are met, following set behavior patterns. But other birds can vary widely in their habitat use, discovering new food sources, solving problems and inventing new ways of doing things. Like the blue tits in Britian that learned to skim cream off milk bottles on porches- and the behavior spread as birds learned it from each other. This book looks into things like exactly how birds learn to do things like that- what parts of the brain are used, what kinds of behaviors do they copy from each other. Which species of birds learn by mimicry, or by being actively coached (some parent birds give their offspring practice and guidance in learning certain skills). It discusses a ton of other stuff too- the complexity and variety of birdsong- in some cases akin to language. The ability of some birds to navigate hundreds of complex social relationships in colonies. How they can steal, cheat, deceive and conversely, console one another. How they can remember thousands of locations where they hid food. Recent findings that poke holes in many long-held notions about birds: many monogamous pairs (including swans) actually perform myriad \”extra-pair copulations on the side\” (and speculations on why they do this). How they perform astonishing feats of navigation- the details of this are still not understood. From the angle of the sun, position of the stars, magnetic field of the earth, visual landmarks and even olfactory memory- it appears to be a combination of it all. The intricacies of nest-building. The artistry of the bower birds. And the astonishing ability of some birds to make tools for specific uses- the New Caledonian crow will even save a tool it has made, and carry it around to use again later. The book doesn\’t just describe observed behavior about all these things, but specific studies done to investigate what types of skills birds could learn and how they managed to solve problems. Points out that scientists have discovered that birds\’ brains are organized very similarly to humans\’, and in some cases their intelligence level is on par with that of great apes. Pretty amazing.
Except that I\’ve read a lot of it before: see Bird Brain by Nathan Emery. And it took me a while to get through this one because I found the writing a bit uneven. The introduction, in particular, is very redundant and it almost put me off reading the rest of the book. I was also sometimes dismayed to read how the experiments were done. Some simply presented wild birds -caught and kept in aviaries for a short time- with problems to solve and then released them to see what they did back in their natural environment, with their new skill. Fascinating. Others used birds in a lab, studying what parts of the brain lit up when certain behaviors or emotions were active – not hard to imagine what that really entailed. More disturbing was when researchers trapped birds during migration, cut a nerve that communicated a certain sense or organ with the brain, and then released them to see if they could still navigate. I guess that\’s a way to see what the bird relies on most to find its way, but I couldn\’t help feeling bad for all those individual birds lost and wandering because of their inflicted disability. They never found their way home.
Borrowed from the public library.
Rating: 3/5 340 pages, 2016