The Genius of Birds

unnamed-1Birds can see more of the light spectrum than we can; they can re-generate their hearing while we lose ours as we age; some of them have acute senses of smell that helps them find food, and home.

Jennifer Ackerman’s new book is a synopsis of recent scientific discoveries about birds. If you are not up to date on the topic, at least as it has filtered into popular consciousness, prepare to be blown away by what she presents. So much detail has been discovered about avian cognition and intelligence in recent years that many of the old beliefs about birds have been utterly stood on their head. “Bird brain” is no longer a slur, it has become instead a mark of the ignorance of the person who uses the expression.

Ackerman discusses brain development, memory, navigation (both spatial and temporal ingenuity), song acquisition (it’s much like human speech acquisition), aesthetic aptitude, and adaptive genius. Just as an example: nest-building was long considered instinctual; it is that, but it also requires “learning and memory, experience, decision making, coordination, and collaboration.[…] It’s work that requires a suite of decisions about location, materials, and construction itself.”Turdus migratoriusAs a commonplace example, here’s an American Robin (Turdus migratorius) gathering a mouthful of nesting material under the tree the nest is in. Robins also use mud to help cement their structures of natural and unnatural materials.Turdus migratorius

While some of us believe in the study of life for its own revelations, others demand what is in it for them. Studying birds of course turns out to tell us a lot about ourselves. For something revolutionary is going on, or should be going on, in our consciousnesses: we’re learning that human beings are animals on this planet, too, intimately connected through the long chain of genetics and evolution. This is very much one of the points of Carl Safina’s magisterial book Beyond Words.Troglodytes aedonThis House Wren was proclaiming his territorial sway over the neighborhood of the Native Flora Garden recently. This is a rather small bird, but it sure is loud. His singing is fueled by testosterone, and the act of singing releases dopamine (more so in the spring) and opiates (more so in the fall). It’s long been a sneaking suspicion of mine that, while song certainly has its instrumental purpose, the birds do indeed enjoy it.

There were a couple of surprising editorial bloopers in Ackerman’s book, and one comment about NYC that was as out-dated as it was dubious to begin with. Editing, alas, gets little attention even at major publishers (Penguin in this case). The striking Scrub Jay on the cover is by Eunike Nugroho, who also did the Great Tit on the back. The internal illustrations, by another artist, are less eye-popping.

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