The Genius of Birds

by Jennifer Ackerman

Hardcover, 2016





New York : Penguin Press, 2016.


"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."--

Media reviews

Ackerman wants us to “appreciate the complex cognitive abilities of birds in their own right and not because they look like some aspect of our own.” "Often, you feel her wonderment, faintly recognizing another, strange intelligence covertly operating in a world we presume to be ours: the one pecking at our muffin crumbs, the quick specks in the sky."

User reviews

LibraryThing member Bookmarque
This was a really interesting follow-on to the book I recently read about consciousness in cephalopods. As you might surmise from the title, corvids (crows, jays and ravens) feature, but also chickadees, zebra finches, hummingbirds, bower birds, pigeons, mockingbirds and even the lowly house sparrow. Many of the anecdotes and research projects are fascinating and defy you to use the term ‘bird brain’ to mean dumb. Parts can be a bit prolonged, but overall it’s a reasonably tight narrative that sticks to its eponymous topic. I like how Ackerman doesn’t inject herself into the story much and sticks to reporting, but I admit to being mystified by her seemingly random use of italics. Also she got the viceroy/monarch butterfly relationship backward - it’s the monarch that is poisonous and the viceroy that is the mimic trying to benefit.… (more)
LibraryThing member charl08
I thought this was a very readable look into research into the Iives of birds around the world, including the more bizarre (like the Bower Bird above) and the everyday sparrow. She includes all sorts of mad anecdotes about bird behaviour (such as the homing pigeon that turned up five years late) along with a sense of humour. She considers the role intelligence may have in different kinds of birds, how birds are dealing with environmental change, as well as considering how some species manage such significant migration pattern (maybe even by their sense of smell). By the end of the book, where she was describing how researchers cut olfactory nerves in birds, and may have caused birds to abandon nests due to early tagging, I did begin to wonder how permission was approved for some of these experiments. Some of the material overlapped with Attenborough documentaries I've seen, which meant I had a picture in my head to go with her more detailed discussions.Copy provided by Netgalley.… (more)
LibraryThing member dele2451
Full of fascinating facts about our feathered friends. One of the best bird, and wildlife, books I've ever read.
LibraryThing member hardlyhardy
Accurately measuring intelligence requires the right yardstick, except that there is no such thing. There are just too many kinds of intelligence for one yardstick to measure. Jennifer Ackerman concedes in “The Genius of Birds” (2016), "I would flunk these sorts of intelligence tests readily as birds might fail mine." She is speaking of the intelligence tests that various species of birds can pass with ease. Take for instance the ability of some birds to hide thousands of seeds and then remember where to find them months later or the ability of a homing pigeon to find its way home from hundreds of miles away.

Scientists might frown on my use of the word intelligence because it sounds to them like anthropomorphizing. They prefer the word cognition when talking about birds and other animals. Give Ackerman credit for being intelligent enough to use the word, however, because it is intelligence that we are talking about.

Even the word cognition has been something of a concession for science, which had long preferred thinking of every amazing thing an animal does as just instinct. By now there have been enough experiments and observations to recognize that birds, more than most animal species, can solve challenging problems. Young birds don't know their songs by instinct but must learn them over a long period of trial and error, just as a child learns to talk. Sparrows in New Zealand learned to use the sensors for a cafeteria's automatic doors so they could fly in to steal food, then fly out again.

Ackerman covers many different kinds of intelligence in birds, including the artistry of bowerbirds and the ability of mockingbirds to learn not only their own song but the songs of many other species of birds.

Some birds seem to be smarter than others, and Ackerman devotes much of her book puzzling over why. Are species that eat a variety of foods smarter than those with a more limited diet? Are birds that live in social groups smarter than loners? Are birds that migrate smarter than those that stay in one place? While discussing such questions, she describes the work of numerous authorities in the field without ever losing her audience, made up of readers of ordinary intelligence, like me, who are humbled by the genius of birds.
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LibraryThing member Beamis12
Up until four years ago I have had birds for most of my life. Parakeets, delightful finches, a crockety Cockatiel and some very clever love birds. Then my asthma became debilitating and I found birds have more allergies than dogs and cats. Who knew? So, I had to give away my two lovebirds. I knew how clever birds could be and even how cunning, but those in this book will surprise.

Ravens that use tools. Can figure out eight step puzzles and other games. I loved the shrub Jay's who hide their nuts for the winter, but are also thieves that steal nuts from others. They have also figured out a way to psyche out other would be thieves. Chickadees that have a early warning system based on perceived threat levels. They show empathy when confronted with a dead bird. Some hnow compassion to their partners. So much info is included, and explained so well.

Many I hadn't heard of an spent time looking them up on wiki, but I enjoyed this book immensely. Read it with a sense of wonder that all the bird slights, name calling such as bird brain, or lame duck, may actually be compliments.
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LibraryThing member nmele
Ackerman had me with her introductory sentence: "For a long time, the knock on birds was that they're stupid." She then proceeds to dismantle that stereotype with accounts of individual bird geniuses, empirical data and fascinating quotes from ornithologists studying birds around the world. This is an enlightening, surprising, entertaining book of popular science.… (more)
LibraryThing member lisa.schureman
There was an uneven pace to this book. When the author focused on specific types of birds, their intelligence, their mating activities, whether they were specialists, opportunists or an invasive species, those sections held my attention. Her sense of humor throughout helped as well. The extensive repetition on avian evolutionary was what bogged down the pace of the book. It was nice to find out that the cheeky chickadee is one of the brighter birds along with the herons. I was interested to read that the English House Sparrow can have more than one brood a year. The ones in our vent pipe are on brood number three. Interesting read though slow at times.… (more)
LibraryThing member Welsh_eileen2
A wonderful book!
It is also a surprising one, as I was unaware of the intelligence of these creatures.
The illustrations are very colourful and detailed. I shall see the birds in my garden a little differently from now on!
Very highly recommended!
I was given a digital copy of this book by the publisher Penguin Group via Netgalley in return for an honest unbiased review.
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LibraryThing member Welsh_eileen2
A wonderful book!
It is also a surprising one, as I was unaware of the intelligence of these creatures.
The illustrations are very colourful and detailed.
I shall see the birds in my garden a little differently from now on!
Very highly recommended.
I was given a digital copy of this book by the publisher Penguin Group via Netgalley in return for an honest unbiased review.
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LibraryThing member mariannedawnl
If you've ever been called a bird brain, you should be flattered as Ackerman aptly shows in her engaging work about bird intelligence. Recent research has indicated that birds are capable of a wide range of cognitive skills, including some that were once considered exclusive to humans. Ackerman teaches us not only about birds, but how studying them provides insight into how the human brain works.… (more)
LibraryThing member msf59
The expression bird-brain is immediately debunked in the opening chapters, as the author lays out the argument that birds are one of the most complex and intelligent species on the planet. A chickadee can hide as many as 30,000 seeds over large distances and remember the location of each one, months later; songbirds, that can store 200 to 2,000 different songs in a brain a thousand times smaller than ours and of course the genius and mind-blowing art of migration.

This is an academic book, but the author keeps the narrative light and easy to follow. It may have bogged down at times with repetition and scientific jargon but for the most part I found it informative and entertaining and the timing, for me, has perfectly coincided with my recent interest in “birding”. Bird-lovers rejoice.
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LibraryThing member CarmenMilligan
This lovely book took me a while to get through because I didn't want to rush the reading, or gloss over all of the marvelous facts Ackerman painstakingly presents.

The author's love and respect for our feathered friends is obvious in her summaries of quirks, personalities, and proclivities of birds. There are scientific facts, anecdotes, summaries, and observations of the level of intelligence and the sheer ingenuity of birds and how they reach their goals.

While this is not a novel, it is very easy to read, and fills your mind with the fluttering and thought processes, which various species of birds go through. As a lay-birdwatcher and ardent feeder- replenisher, I very much enjoyed this and recommend it.

Many thanks to NetGalley for a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.
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LibraryThing member SandyAMcPherson
An entertaining read. I was struck by the varied, amazing stories of activities by birds. However, I think it is a fatal mistake of attributing a human-interpretation to these stories. And it was unfortunate that the reference notes don't justify the observations with actual research: anecdotes are not data and cannot contribute to behavioural statistics. This was strange since the author wrote a well-nuanced section on the dangers of anthropomorphism.… (more)
LibraryThing member LynnB
I really enjoyed this book. The information was very well presented; the author not only gave us evidence of "the genius of birds", but also about how specific abilities have helped different species adapt and survive. There were also a number of interesting, sometimes humourous, stories about birds, such as a homing pigeon who came home 5 years late and a bower bird with a blue pacifier. The amount of information birds can store in very small brains is amazing. I only wish the book had had pictures of the main birds featured.… (more)
LibraryThing member gypsysmom
This was a great book. Perhaps it helped that I am a birder but really anyone interested in science or nature would be fascinated by it I think. Ackerman references many scientific studies but not in a dry technical manner. If you have ever used the term "bird brain" in a perjorative fashion then this book would make you rethink that. The book is divided into chapters about different neurological traits such a solving complex problems, direction finding, remembering, communicating etc. You will find out about the New Caledonian Crow of the South Pacific and the Bowerbirds of New Guinea and Australia but also more common birds such as chickadees and pigeons.

This was an audiobook and the narrator Margaret Strom did an absolutely wonderful job of expressing Ackerman's enthusiasm and wonderment. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member eilonwy_anne
Not sure if this is 3.5 or 4 stars.

The information is great, fascinating, and well organized. Sometimes the writing tries for playfulness or cleverness at the expense of clarity.

Audiobook not recommended: the narrator does not seem well versed in or comfortable with scientific language.… (more)
LibraryThing member LisCarey
"Birdbrain" has long been a term that meant stupid or foolish. Birds have tiny brains, therefore they must be pretty stupid, right?

This book is about just how wrong that perception is.

Ackerman uses both personal anecdotes and solid scientific research from a variety of researchers to show us the real intelligence and variety of birds.

Crows and ravens get a fair amount of recognition as brighter than most birds, though they're also often considered loud and obnoxious. They can do some impressively complex things. New Caledonian crows, for instance can make compound tools, which an ability pretty much limited to them and humans.

But as intriguing as crows are, Ackerman talks about a wide variety of birds and their skills. Mockingbirds are notable for imitating the songs of other birds, animals, and even the sounds of human machinery, but recent research shows that they learn, and practice, and ultimately perfect their songs in a process very much like how humans learn language. The same is true of many songbirds; different populations of the same species will have songs that are perhaps similar, but not identical. If a male from one area finds his way into another area with a different "dialect," the local females tend to find him less attractive--perhaps because, being obviously not a local, he may not be as good a forager in local conditions.

Bower birds build elaborate and colorful structures that aren't nests; they're solely for courtship purposes. Females evaluate the bowers carefully; they visit several, repeatedly, before choosing a male to breed with. This highlights two important point. First, the males aren't born knowing how to build bower that will win the favor of a female who will breed with him; they're born with the inclination, but it takes both observation and practice to master the skill successfully. Secondly, the females are able to keep rather impressive mental maps in their tiny heads, enabling them to retain the locations of several different candidates who may be scattered over large distances.

Ackerman also takes us through the complexities of avian navigation, an area where the humble pigeon shines bright.

I'm barely touching on the fascinating information in this audiobook. Highly recommended.

I bought this audiobook.
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LibraryThing member Daumari
Fully deserving of all of its accolades last year, The Genius of Birds finds that sweet spot of an interesting, compelling popular science book without being a bone-dry textbook.

(I always like to see what other reviewers think as I write my own, and I'm a lil' amused to see some people disliked this because it was *too* fluffy whereas others didn't care for Ackerman's extensive literature references. Popular science comes with a broad audience, I suppose.)

The Genius of Birds is divided up by different types of intelligence- as much as we'd like to think smarts is the only thing that counts, intelligence can be considered in different categories- social intelligence (do I know who my relatives are, and do I care? How do I react to my kin, or the hottie next door?), aesthetics (bowerbirds and sexy son hypothesis), spatial (various ways birds might map their world), etc. Ackerman examines current (as of writing/publication) literature and research, interviewing scientists working in the field, and weaves in the natural history of the focus species. Corvids of course appear frequently, but other birds make appearances with sparrows having the final chapter as a species that has co-evolved with our artificial habitats.

Would recommend for people who like popular science books, those with a passing interest in neuroscience of non-hominids, and people who like birds.
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LibraryThing member JBD1
A thoroughly interesting popular treatment of recent research on bird "intelligence," in various forms. Other than a few moments which I found overly repetitive, I learned a great deal and very much liked the book.
LibraryThing member Gwendydd
This is a fascinating look at bird cognition. We tend to think of birds (except corvids) as very stupid, but Ackerman explores all the ways they are geniuses and how this contributes to their survival. Some birds have exceptional problem-solving skills, some have amazing navigational skills that we humans are completely incapable of understanding, some have impressive artistic skills. Ackerman points out that the earliest birds survived the extinction of the dinosaurs, so their brains have been evolving for millions of years longer than mammal brains. Their brains are structured differently from ours, so their capabilities are very different from humans. Ackerman does a great job of explaining the science without getting too technical.… (more)
LibraryThing member Narilka
Basically the author looked up all the studies she could find on bird intelligence and wrote a research paper. It is definitely well researched and decently written, with the final third of the book being all her references and an appendix. While I do enjoy the topic, I was hoping for more original content.
LibraryThing member Northlaw
A truly wonderful book, which had all the qualities I look for in a non-fiction book. Writing that keeps you interested and new and exciting ideas on nearly every page. A delight to read and a book I would highly recommend.



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