I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
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.
The insult “bird brain” has always bothered me—how exactly is this insulting? I suppose if the only birds you are familiar with are domestic chickens and turkeys, you might think it’s appropriate, but if you’ve ever studied wild birds, you’ll know that it’s completely off the mark. Detailed observation of the domestic fowl might change your mind, too.
Think of the hummingbird—with a brain smaller than a pea, it manages to migrate long distances and maintain detailed mental maps of nectar sources in its territory, knowing when each flower will be refilled with sweet goodness and ready to be drained again! Or think about the Gray Jay, with its multitudinous stored foodstuffs, to be recovered before they have spoiled. Even the lowly pigeon can do amazing things—witness the homing pigeons, used successfully by people to communicate over great distances.
This book, while enjoyable, it not a scientific tome. Much of it consists of anecdotal evidence, which seems self-evident, but hasn’t necessarily been peer reviewed. If you are searching for a definite science textbook on bird intelligence, this book may leave you frustrated, but if you are a bird enthusiast you will enjoy gaining a new appreciation for our feathered neighbours.