Could there be a book title more perfectly designed to appeal to my interests? Jennifer Ackerman’s new book is a fascinating exploration of bird intelligence, which begins with a description of the New Caledonian crow’s amazing ability to make and use tools in a variety of contexts. Of course, other birds also use found objects – to hook food out of holes, to carry water or honey to their nests, even to fight off enemies (with one documented case of a crow and a jay having a ‘sword’ fight with a sharp twig). However, tool use is just one of an awe-inspiring array of abilities displayed by birds.
I was especially interested to read about the complex social skills of different bird species. Birds tease one another, play together, teach useful skills to younger birds and console family members after an upsetting event. Some of them spy on and steal from their rivals, kidnap baby birds or feign injury to fool an enemy. They are sensitive to injustice and, just like dogs and primates, will refuse to work for a smaller reward than their peers. They can choose to delay gratification to receive a bigger reward later (which many humans struggle to do) and will bring gifts to those who have rescued or fed them (although not necessarily gifts that most humans will appreciate – one girl in Seattle received buttons, screws, hinges, a tiny plastic tube and a rotting crab claw).
Bird song is also complex, with many similarities to human language. Just like humans, young birds have an instinctual urge to vocalise, with an ‘optimal period’ of learning. Like humans, they learn by imitation and practice, although some birds are far superior to humans in the number of ‘languages’ they can learn and show amazing acoustic consistency when singing a particular song. Birds sing the dialect particular to their local area and can show ‘speech defects’, such as a stutter.
Other human-like abilities include architectural and artistic skills. There’s a wonderful description of an Australian satin bowerbird building not a nest, but a boudoir for attracting and seducing females:
“First, he furiously clears debris from an area about a yard square and then sets about diligently collecting twigs and grasses, which he distributes evenly to make his ‘platform’. From this collection, he selects choice twigs to plant in two neat rows, creating a kind of avenue carefully positioned to catch the morning strike of sun. At the northern end, he arranges his bed of fine twigs, evening it out. This will serve as the background for his panoply of decorations – and also as a sort of dance floor, where he will later offer up some showy pirouette and song.
Next comes the business of collecting treasures. Not just any object will do. This bird is bullish on blue: cornflower-blue tail feathers from a parrot, lavender lobelia blossoms, shiny blue fruits from the quandong tree, purple petunias, and blue delphiniums stolen from a nearby homestead, along with fragments of cobalt glass or pottery, navy blue hair ribbons, bits of turquoise tarp, blue bus tickets, straws, toys, ballpoint pens, that [turquoise glass] eyeball, and his prize, a baby-blue pacifier pilfered from his neighbor. These he arranges artfully against his twig canvas. If his flowers wither or his berries shrivel, he’ll replace them with fresh ones. Watch for a few more days, and you might see him paint a chest-high band on the inside of his twig hall, using dried hoop pine needles he has chewed and crushed in his beak.”
Other birds build ingenious nests from natural and human-made materials, with sparrows even adding cigarette butts (which contain chemicals that repel bird parasites).
There’s an engrossing discussion of how pigeons and migratory birds manage their extraordinary feats of navigation and memory, which leads to a critique of our biased, anthropocentric definitions of ‘intelligence’. The author ends with a sober warning about how human activity – hunting, deforestation, pollution and climate change – is already threatening some bird species. Within a few decades, the effect on bird diversity could be catastrophic and this book demonstrates just how much we would lose.
Anyone with the slightest interest in birds will find this book fascinating, but it will also appeal to those interested in the wider field of human and animal cognition. Highly recommended!
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