New Book Tells of Bird Intelligence

Apr 13, 2016

The term “bird brain” is used to imply stupidity, but a new book by Jennifer Ackerman suggests our feathered friends are anything but.  It's called the Genius of Birds.

Since childhood, when she had a pet parakeet named Grisgris, Jennifer Ackerman has marveled at the intelligence of birds.

Ackerman says, “At breakfast time he would sit on the edge of my cereal bowl and peck at my cereal, and the milk would splash, so I would take to  barricades of boxes around my cereal bowl, and this bird could figure out anything.  He would move the boxes, he would perch on top of the cereal boxes and dive down.  He was really a smart bird.”

And over the last 15 years, Ackerman says a great deal of research has been published showing just how smart some birds are. She says, “They’re capable of problem solving and planning, they have these prodigious memories.  They learn by example as children do.  They can recognize human faces.  They can even converse in a meaningful way, and all of this is with a packet of brain it would inside a walnut.”

There are, for example, the talking birds like Alex - an African parrot who knew hundreds of words.  Here’s a conversation he had with his keeper, who shows him a couple of colorful keys: “How many?  Two.  That’s right.  You’re a good boy.  Can I go back?  No, you can’t go back yet.  I want some water.  Alright.  What color bigger?  Green.  Green!  You’re a good boy!”

A New Caledonian crow named Betty fashioned a hook to retrieve food, and a Japanese crow was videotaped dropping nuts on the road, waiting for cars to run over them, and then retrieving the nut meats. 

Mockingbirds of just one of many whose intelligence is covered in Ackerman's new book
Credit Wikimedia Foundation

  Mockingbirds can imitate dozens of other bird calls as well as squeaky gates, sirens and barking dogs, while a western bird called the Clark’s nutcracker will, each year, hide about 30,000 seeds in as many as 5,000 locations - then go back and find them, even if they’re covered by snow.

“I think about this every time I misplace my glasses or my keys,” says Ackerman.

Humans also marvel at birds’ ability to migrate thousands of miles without the benefit of maps or GPS.  Ackerman cites a study done by Princeton scientists who captured a flock of white-crowned sparrows as they flew south in California.  They were placed on a plane - taken to New Jersey and released. She says, “And within hours those sparrows were beelining it back to where they’d been heading originally. Even the young ones, who had only made that migratory journey once.”

Chicadees can warn one another about possible threats.  And Eurasian jays try to please mates with a surprising treat. Ackerman says, “If a male jay is allowed to watch a female eat her fill of wax worms -- wax worms and meal worms are kind of the Belgian truffles of the jay world - he’ll pick the meal worms that she hasn’t just eaten.”

Then there are the tasteful satin bower birds who decorate a stage before performing for prospective mates. “It’s made of sticks.  It has a little archway that the female stands in, and then the male bird collects objects to decorate the floor of his bower, and mostly he likes blue objects, and they’re very rare in the rainforest where he lives, so he’s got to do some exploration and also some stealing.  These birds like to steal their blue objects from other satin bower birds,” says Ackerman.

These and other stories are featured in Jennifer Ackerman’s book - the Genius of Birds.  Jennifer Ackerman will speak at the New Dominion Book Shop in Charlottesville April 14 at 5:30, and you can find her appearance on the NPR talk show On Point here.