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 dele2451
Full of fascinating facts about our feathered friends. One of the best bird, and wildlife, books I've ever read.
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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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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