When Jennifer Ackerman published her New York Times beststeller The Genius of Birds in 2016, she helped crystallize something that many bird researchers and bird lovers already knew, but no one had ever put forth so compellingly: Birds are really, really smart.
Now Ackerman is back with a new book, The Bird Way: A Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think. Instead of focusing solely on bird intelligence, this time Ackerman draws on personal observations and modern research to explore the many different facets of bird life and behavior, and how they can differ from species to species. Split up into five different sections—Talk, Work, Play, Love, and Parent—the book is a captivating and fresh look into the avian world and its many wonders.
Excerpt adapted from Jennifer Ackerman’s latest book, The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think, available on-sale now. This extract is published by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Jennifer Ackerman.
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“There is the mammal way and there is the bird way.” This is one scientist’s pithy distinction between mammal brains and bird brains: two ways to make a highly intelligent mind.
But the bird way is much more than a unique pattern of brain wiring. It’s flight and egg and feathers and song. It’s the demure plumage of a mountain thornbill and the extravagant tail feathers of an Indian paradise flycatcher, the solo song of a superb lyrebird and the perfectly timed duets of canebrake wrens, an osprey’s hurtling dive toward the sea, and a long-legged heron’s still, patient eyeing of the dark water.
There is clearly no single bird way of being but rather a staggering array of species with different looks and lifestyles. In every respect, in plumage, form, song, flight, niche, and behavior, birds vary. It’s what we love about them. Diversity fascinates biologists. It fascinates birdwatchers, too, driving us to assemble life lists, to travel to far corners of the globe to visit a rare species or jump in the car to spot a vagrant blown in by a storm, to go “pishing” and whistling into the woods to draw that elusive warbler.
Watch birds for a while, and you see that different species do even the most mundane things in radically different ways. We give a nod to this variety in expressions we use to describe our own extreme behaviors. We are owls or larks, swans or ugly ducklings, hawks or doves, good eggs or bad eggs. We snipe and grouse and cajole, a word that comes from the French root meaning “chatter like a jay.”We are dodos or chickens or popinjays or proud as peacocks. We are stool pigeons and sitting ducks. Culture vultures. Vulture capitalists. Lovebirds. An albatross around the neck. Off on a wild goose chase. Cuckoo. We are naked as a jaybird or in full feather. Fully fledged, empty nesters, no spring chicken. We are early birds, jailbirds, rare birds, odd birds.
As biologist E. O. Wilson once said, when you have seen one bird, you have not seen them all.
This is certainly true for behavior. Take white-winged choughs. Australians say it’s easy to fall in love with these birds—and it is. They’re adorable, charismatic, gregarious, comical: lined up on a narrow tree branch, six or seven red-eyed puffs of black feathers, tenderly preening one another in a pearl-like strand of endearment and affection. Clumsy fliers, they prefer to walk everywhere, swaggering through dry eucalypt woodlands with their heads strutting backward and forward like a chicken’s.They pipe and whistle and wag their tails like puppies. They’re fond of playing follow-the-leader or keep-away, rolling over one another to win posses- sion of a stick or a slip of bark. About the size of a crow but slimmer—black with elegant white wing patches and an arched bill—they live in stable groups of four to twenty birds and are always, always found in clusters or huddles or lines. Like a tight-knit family, they do everything together, drink, roost, dust bathe, play, run in wide formation like a football team to share a food discovery. Together they build big bizarre nests of mud (or emu or cattle dung if they’re in a pinch) set on a horizontal branch, queuing up on the limb, waiting their turn to add their bit of shredded bark, grass, or fur soaked with mud to the rim of the nest. Together they brood, guard, and feed the young. Members of family groups are rarely more than five or ten feet apart. I once saw three fledglings jammed together on the ground like the three wise monkeys, see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.
And yet there’s a darker side to choughs, especially if the weather turns bad. They squabble and fight, one group pitted against another. Larger groups gang up on smaller groups, flying at them and pecking viciously, dislodging eggs from nests, and nests from trees. They are known to go on violent crime sprees, ruining the nesting efforts of numerous other groups. One bird was observed picking up eggs in its bill one at a time and tossing them to the ground. Perhaps most unsettling, warring choughs do something few animals apart from humans and ants do: They forcibly kidnap and enslave the young from other groups.
This is a book about the range of surprising and sometimes alarming behaviors that birds perform daily, activities that firmly, sometimes gleefully, reverse conventional notions about what is “normal” in birds and what we thought they were capable of.
Lately, scientists have taken a new look at behaviors they have run past for years and dismissed as anomalies or set aside as abiding mysteries. What they have found is upending traditional views of how birds conduct their lives, how they communicate, forage, court, breed, survive. It’s also revealing the remarkable strategies and intelligence underly- ing these activities, abilities we once considered uniquely our own, or at least the sole domain of a few clever mammals—deception, manipulation, cheating, kidnapping, and infanticide, but also ingenious communication between species, cooperation, collaboration, altruism, culture, and play.
Some of these extraordinary behaviors are conundrums that seem to push the edges of, well, birdness: a mother bird that kills her own infant sons, and another that selflessly tends to the young of other birds as if they were her own. Young birds that devote themselves to feeding their siblings, and others so competitive that they’ll stab their nest mates to death. Birds that create gorgeous works of art, and birds that wantonly destroy the creations of other birds. Birds like the white-winged chough that contain their own contradictions: one murderous bird that impales its prey on thorns or forked branches but sings so beautifully that composers have devised whole compositions around its songs; another with a reputation for solemnity that is strongly addicted to play; and another that collaborates with one species—humans—but parasitizes another in gruesome fashion. Birds that give gifts and birds that steal, that dance and drum, that paint their creations or paint themselves. Birds that build walls of sound to keep out intruders, and birds that summon playmates with a special call—and may hold the secret to our own penchant for playfulness and the evolution of human laughter.
The idea for this book was seeded in conversations about novel bird behaviors with Louis Lefebvre of McGill University during research for my last book, The Genius of Birds. More than two decades ago, Lefebvre invented the first scale of intelligence for birds, based on a bird’s behavior in the wild. How inventive is the species in its natural environment? Does it make use of new things and find creative solutions to the problems it faces? Does it try new foods? These activities are indicators of what’s called behavioral flexibility, which is one fairly reliable measure of intelligence. It’s the ability to do something new—to change your behavior to address new circumstances and new challenges. Ornithological journals are full of short reports of these kinds of odd and interesting doings. Lefebvre had combed through journals of the past seventy-five years and found more than two thousand reports of these sorts of innovative behaviors in birds of different species.
A prime example was the hooded crows that stole fish from ice fishermen by tugging on their lines with their beaks and walking across the ice as far as they could go, then returning for another stretch of line, stepping on it each time to make sure it didn’t slip back.
A recent, more high-tech instance of bird ingenuity popped up in 2018 when a scientist tracking western gulls with geolocators to see where they fed was puzzled to see a gull traveling at sixty miles per hour for a distance of seventy-five miles, crossing the BayBridge from San Francisco to Oakland and traveling along the interstates before returning by the same route to her nest. It turned out that the gull, a female breeding on the Farallon Islands west of San Francisco Bay, had hitched a ride on a garbage truck bound for an organic composting facility in the Central Valley near Modesto. At first the researcher thought the bird might have gotten trapped in the truck. But then, two days later, the same thing happened. Clearly, this gull was using its head (if not its palate—as one Bay Area news reporter quipped, “It might be the only time a San Francisco resident ever drove to Modesto for dinner”).
Scientists traditionally have little use for anecdotal evidence, demand- ing data that can be replicated or manipulated statistically. But a single observation by a competent and honest observer of a bird doing something exceptional can offer a rare window into a bird’s flexibility of mind. The reports are anecdotal, to be sure, but together they produce plentiful evidence of the ability of birds to solve problems or discover new and better ways to accomplish daily tasks.
The point is this: Novel or unusual behavior is often intelligent behavior.
When I asked scientists from all over the world for examples of striking bird behaviors in the wild, again and again they led me to stories of ingenuity and cleverness—smart strategies, sometimes rooted in evolutionary wisdom, but more often based in a bird’s capacity for complex cognition. That’s broadly defined as the ability to acquire, process, store, and use information indifferent contexts. In the past decade or so, birds have revealed their ability to solve problems using advanced cognitive skills rather than simple instinct or conditioning, learning by association. These sophisticated mental skills—such as decision-making, finding patterns, and planning for the future—are what allow birds to flexibly fine-tune their behavior in response to challenges of all kinds over their lifetimes.
Only lately has science illuminated how birds can be smart with a brain at best the size of a walnut. In 2016, a team of international scientists reported their discovery of one secret: birds pack more brain cells into a smaller space. When the team counted the number of neurons in the brains of twenty-eight different bird species ranging in size from the pint-size zebra finch to the six-foot-tall emu, they found that birds have higher neuron counts in their small brains than do mammals or even primates of similar brain size. Neurons in bird brains are much smaller, more numerous, and more densely packed than those in mammalian and primate brains.
This tight arrangement of neurons makes for efficient high-speed sensory and nervous systems. In other words, say the researchers, bird brains have the potential to provide much higher cognitive clout per pound than do mammalian brains.
Birds are iconoclasts and rule breakers. They destroy our assumptions. They defy our neat categories and tidy unifying theories that try to explain all the mystifying variety under one big umbrella. They blow apart our beliefs about the uniqueness of our own species. Time and again we humans have claimed that we’re the only species with a particular capacity—toolmaking, reasoning, language-like communication—only to discover that birds share similar abilities. The more we learn about the range of their extraordinary behaviors, the more birds defeat our efforts to pigeonhole them, if you’ll excuse the expression.
The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think, by Jennifer Ackerman, Penguin Press, 368 pages, $28. Buy it online at Bookshop.