Wednesday, November 2, 2016

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS, my 4.5* rave for a Goodreads Choice Awards nominee


Penguin Press
$28.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: 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. As she travels around the world to the most cutting-edge frontiers of research— the distant laboratories of Barbados and New Caledonia, the great tit communities of the United Kingdom and the bowerbird habitats of Australia, the ravaged mid-Atlantic coast after Hurricane Sandy and the warming mountains of central Virginia and the western states—Ackerman not only tells the story of the recently uncovered genius of birds but also delves deeply into the latest findings about the bird brain itself that are revolutionizing our view of what it means to be intelligent.

Consider, as Ackerman does, the Clark’s nutcracker, a bird that can hide as many as 30,000 seeds over dozens of square miles and remember where it put them several months later; the mockingbirds and thrashers, species that can store 200 to 2,000 different songs in a brain a thousand times smaller than ours; the well-known pigeon, which knows where it’s going, even thousands of miles from familiar territory; and the New Caledonian crow, an impressive bird that makes its own tools.

But beyond highlighting how birds use their unique genius in technical ways, Ackerman points out the impressive social smarts of birds. They deceive and manipulate. They eavesdrop. They display a strong sense of fairness. They give gifts. They play keep-away and tug-of-war. They tease. They share. They cultivate social networks. They vie for status. They kiss to console one another. They teach their young. They blackmail their parents. They alert one another to danger. They summon witnesses to the death of a peer. They may even grieve.

This elegant scientific investigation and travelogue weaves personal anecdotes with fascinating science. Ackerman delivers an extraordinary story that will both give readers a new appreciation for the exceptional talents of birds and let them discover what birds can reveal about our changing world. Incredibly informative and beautifully written, The Genius of Birds richly celebrates the triumphs of these surprising and fiercely intelligent creatures.

My Review: I voted for this book in the 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards. It deserves ever one of its stars! I was fascinated by the breadth of the study's scope. I was impressed by Ackerman's lucidity of prose, despite the (inevitable, I suppose) use of a lot of scientific jargon.

I've been a bird fancier since the first time I saw a Baltimore oriole's nest in 1967. In fact, after the birds had raised their chicks and migrated north again, I scaled (for the one and only time in my life! so scared of heights I had to be rescued by my aunt's gardener) the pecan tree where I'd watched them live their South Texas breeding lives and got me that empty nest. It was a staple of my home decor until a careless mover crushed it in 1999. I was so angry I had to leave the house for an hour or I'd've crushed him.

Crows fascinate me to this day. In Austin in the 1970s, the street I lived on had gob-oodles of trees. Crows liked to perch in them because there was an extensive open space very near us. Great place to grub around (in the literal sense of the verb) and thus I could, over time, learn that there were certain trees where certain crows could normally be found. I also discovered that crows like multi-grain bread, which I do not, so they appreciated my gifts of whole crumbled loaves of the stuff that my mother couldn't afford to replace with anything except my preferred rye or pumpernickel bread. Thanks, guys!

This book resonated with me for those reasons, and also taught me a goodly amount of new information. I am completely unsurprised by the expanded knowledge scientists are accumulating about birds. They've been evolving for over 300MM years! Dinosaurs weren't stupid to begin with; add the last 65MM years for the birds to accumulate new knowledge and it shouldn't surprise us they're smart, it should surprise us if we find that they're dimwitted instinct-driven dum-dums.

Very highly recommended if you're already interested in birds; still recommended if you're only mildly curious about the avian family that we continue to decimate with our carelessness about the planet we live on. Pretty soon, ladies and gentlemen,THE BIRDS by Daphne du Maurier will be a prediction not a cautionary tale.

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