The Genius of Birds | Jennifer Ackerman

It was a struggle but Kernel Deb took off her khakis, put down her binoculars, her pencil, her camera and her bird spotting guide and sat down to read about the intelligence of birds in Jennifer Ackerman’s THE GENIUS OF BIRDS. A study of the intelligence in birds. This is something I would never have the patience to read but something from the below review may indicate an increased size of Deb’s hippocampi, actually it is more likely mine is greatly shrunk. As Deb points out this is a book for all bird lovers and also those interested in neurology. It is out now from the folks at Scribe Publications. Enjoy Deb’s thoughts on the the feathered flyers………..all the best…………..JK.



Jennifer Ackerman’s new book THE GENIUS OF BIRDS is a book for ornithologists and bird lovers as well as anyone interested in neurology or science. Her premise is simple – birds are clever. THE GENIUS OF BIRDS makes this fact resoundingly clear as Ackerman explores the many facets of their ingenuity. Not only do birds have a flair for meeting environmental and social challenges, our feathered friends are capable of various feats that indicate higher level intellectual capacity including tool making, reasoning, planning, learning from one another, showing empathy, and demonstrating a sense of self and of mind. It makes for fascinating reading.


Ackerman is a multi-award winning scientific writer. Her interests range from the microscopic to the global so over the years she has covered a diverse range of topics from the human microbiome, genetic modification of food, sexual habit of dragon flies, neural networks and mind, the purpose of sleep, and plastic pollutants in the sea. According to her website, in the last 25 years she has written for Scientific American, National Geographic Magazine, The New York Times and several other publications.

In addition her work has featured in several anthologies including Best American Science Writing, The Nature Reader, Flights of Imagination: Extraordinary Writings about Birds and The Penguin Book of the Ocean. Previous books include Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream:  A Day in the Life of Your Body (Houghton Mifflin, 2001); Ah-Choo:  The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold (Twelve Press, 2010); Chance in the House of Fate:  A Natural History of Heredity (Houghton Mifflin, 2001); and Notes from the Shore (Viking Penguin, 1995).


The Genius of Birds Jennifer Ackerman Author and Book Cover image



THE GENIUS OF BIRDS is a sectional construction with Ackerman exploring different aspects of bird cognition in each chapter. Chapters explore the technical, social, vocal, aesthetic, spatial and adaptive abilities of birds, with Ackerman summarising current research and introducing parallels with human abilities where relevant. Ackerman citing Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man argues that animal and humans differ in their mental powers only in degree, not in kind. Animals including birds, acquire, process, store and use information via learning, memory perception and decision making. Higher skills include insight, reasoning and planning.


Ackerman notes that birds, like dolphins, whales, elephants and humans, have relatively large brains for their body size. Birds with the highest brain to body size ratio such as ravens, crows, parrots and sparrows tend to be smarter than birds at the other end of the spectrum like quails, turkeys, emus and ostriches. Birds with extended childhoods, where adults in the species assist with their education have bigger brains, which in turn correlates with the use of tools and the ability to learn skills from one another. Smarter birds also tend to live in small cohesive groups and pair-bond for life.


Pigeons are not known as especially intelligent birds, after all as Ackerman points out they only have half the frontal neural density of crows. Nevertheless they can count, add and subtract like primates, and determine relative probability, apparently faring better at the Monty Hall Dilemma than many humans. Pigeons can also differentiate between the paintings of Van Gogh, Monet and Picasso, recognise human faces, and read human expressions.

More complex abilities are demonstrated by ravens and crows. For example, a New Caledonian crow dubbed 007 was filmed completing eight separate tasks to get a cube of meat from a special food chamber in a 2014 experiment. Solving the puzzle required problem analysis, sequential steps, working memory to remember the required steps, the use of a meta-tool (a tool used to get another object to be used as the tool to obtain food) and a tool to obtain the prize at the end. Significantly, meta-tool use had only been seen in the great apes and humans prior to this experiment. Footage of this amazing crow featured in a 2014 BBC documentary about the animal mind is at the bottom of this article.


The Genius of Birds Book Cover image



THE GENIUS OF BIRDS emphasises that whilst brain size is important, brain cell density and organisation is even more important. Birds have a modular and lateralised brain configuration which means specific parts of their brains do different things. Variations in the modular structure results in differences in ability both within and between bird species. One brain structure that varies in size is the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the area of the brain that helps humans and birds orientate in space. A bigger hippocampus means superior spatial processing.

Humans who have acquired detailed spatial maps such as London cab drivers that have acquired “the knowledge” are known to have more grey matter in their hippocampi compared with younger less experienced cabbies or London bus drivers that drive along specific routes. Similarly, food caching birds such as chickadees and jays have bigger hippocampi than non-food caching species. Likewise race-experienced homing pigeons have larger hippocampi than non-racing relatives.


Ackerman stresses in THE GENIUS OF BIRDS that it is not always the strongest species that survives nor the most intelligent, but the one that is most adaptable to change. Introduced species are more successful if they are inventive, able to use novel resources and adjust feeding behaviours. A love of novelty, a dash of daring and a social group to share learning or use cooperative strategies also helps. Ackerman points out that house sparrows meet all these criteria. In addition, their ability to live alongside humans coupled with a high brooding rate means house sparrows are now the most widely distributed bird on the planet.


Birds, our beady eyed, nut brained co-inhabitants on planet Earth are present in virtually every habitat on earth thus they have a huge ecological niche. Their ability to colonise, survive and adapt makes them an evolutionary success story. It is clear in THE GENIUS OF BIRDS that there are many different definitions of intelligence but from an evolutionary context, if intelligence is defined as success at surviving and reproducing in many different environments, then birds are true champions. Moreover birds are inventive shrewd creatures capable of cognitive tasks that include complex navigation, mathematical tasks, problem solving, language and tool use. Their abilities make for thought provoking and interesting reading.


4 and a Half Pops




Deborah is a lifelong lover of books, food, TV and film with a penchant for schlock horror, superheroes, science , black and Asian martial arts stars. She would prefer to skydive than couch surf and is a fan of zombie walks. She can be found plugged into podcasts on long walks with her dog.

** All images courtesy of various sources on Google or direct from the distributor/publisher – credit has been given to photographers where known – images will be removed on request.


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