Book Review: Genius of Birds, part 1

Nothing against bestseller lists, but I’ve read some books headlined with NY Times Bestseller that have been real clunkers. (Fortunately I’ve transitioned out of my youthful habit of finishing books that I actively dislike.)

The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman provided the opposite problem – I wanted to burn into my brain half of what I read and yet was so excited about what would come next that I barely slowed down to process. I gave up marking up passages and just read greedily.

I could randomly open to any page and find captivating tidbits. Just now, I thumbed open to “Has all of this living cheek by jowl with mates, family, friends, and peers made birds smart? Do they owe their quick, flexible minds not just to the tricky physical challenges of their environment but to the sticky social ones, the trials and tribulations of getting along? It’s called the social intelligence hypothesis, and among scientists, it has lately won a considerable following.” (102)

Or, “Clearly not all birds are equally bright or able in all ways—at least by current accounting. Pigeons, for instance, don’t do well on tasks that require them to abstract a general rule to solve a suite of similar problems, a skill easily learned by crows. But the lowly pigeon is a wizard in other ways: It can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different paint styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles. Shorebirds such as plovers, sanderlings, and sandpipers show no evidence of ‘insight learning,’ that grasp of relationships that permits birds like the New Caledonian crow to use tools or to operate man-made devices that reward their ingenuity with food. But one shorebird, the piping plover, is a master of theatrics, capable of diverting predators from their shallow, exposed nests with a feigned ‘injured wing’ display.

What makes one bird smarter than another? How do you measure a bird’s intelligence anyway?” (19-20)

This central tenet of the book – exploring the evidence for bird’s intelligence, while also reminding us that our metrics are human-centered, culminates in a sobering reminder of the outsize power of the Anthropocene to determine what kind of intelligence will survive and what kind of intelligence will die out.

Ackerman balances tensions of studying bird intelligence based on human intelligence values nicely, acknowledging that we should not value birds more or less based on their intelligence, but should explore how and why they are able to problem-solve and innovate. I would consider myself to be far more ‘intelligent’ than a spotted sandpiper, but who flies thousands of miles annually on a migration that defies the imagination? I certainly couldn’t keep myself fed, oriented, warm, and safe from predators on a journey of thousands of miles without considerable training and technology. Let alone to make the trip within weeks of my entry into the world, and twice a year for the remainder of my time among the living. What we determine as the baseline of intelligence speaks to our own biases as much as anything else.

(You could also debate whether it is a sign of intelligence to spend hours peering through binoculars trying to decipher patterns of brown and white in frustrating attempts to identify shorebirds.)

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