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Homage to the Power of the Bird Brain

Book Review:

The Genius of Birds

by Jennifer Ackerman, April 2016 by Penguin Press

Last winter we began to hear, on dark evenings, the sounds of something that sounded like a distressed monkey. It came from the trees along the path that empties onto East Alder. Primitive. Haunting. An Internet search by my husband, who had taken ornithology in college and knew the sound came from a bird and not a dying primate, turned up a match: the barred owl. This was no fairy tale hooting, so what was this owl “saying?” According to Jennifer Ackerman’s research, birds that continue singing after the season for mating has passed may be vocalizing for their own amusement. On the other hand, maybe it was a statement about territory. Alternatively, because vocalizing in birds releases dopamine and opioids into their nervous systems and thereby relieves aches, pains, and diminishes the sense of cold, these bizarre sounds may have been warding off the insults of winter.

How birds sing, navigate, make tools, pass along knowledge and socialize are some of the topics covered in Ackerman’s remarkable homage to the power of the bird brain. Birds can count, make hooks for foraging food, teach their young and kiss. The term “birdbrain” is decidedly a misnomer. Consider that it’s not the size of a brain that determines intelligence, but the number of neurons that respective brain contains. And these pint-sized descendants from dinosaurs have more neurons than elephants!

The astounding facts about the intelligence of birds presented in this accessible and delightful book are too immense to enumerate here. Suffice it to say that even for the novice birder or the casual observer of wildlife, there are great treats in store. Did you know that magpies can recognize their images in a mirror, “a form of social awareness that we once believed was restricted to humans”? Or that crows are sensitive to inequity and cockatoos can delay gratification?

One of the underlying themes is that the birds that don’t have to solve problems and deal with environmental challenges, lose some of their brainpower compared with their counterparts who do have to contend with more complexities. So, beware depending on Alexa! And birds which are nurtured longer in the nest than related species grow bigger brains. Lesson: Talk to your children, not your cellphone!

We are fortunate in Leschi to have enough greenspace to support myriad avian species. That’s the good news. The bad news: Human encroachment and climate change mean that 80% of the world’s bird population might be extinct in the next 100 years. Go out and meet your winged neighbors. Observe their intensity, their energy, their habits, their flights. And rejoice that we live in an environment that sustains such miracles.

~Anne Depue

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