Our Feathered Friends

They aren’t the intellectual lightweights we take them for


The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think by Jennifer Ackerman; Penguin Press, 368 pp., $28

Gabrielle Nevitt grew up enthralled with birds. Not just the birds at the feeder or in the woods near her home. She knew birds intimately—because they lived with her in her house.

She carried a pet bantam rooster around like a doll. She remembers the sweet scent at the base of his comb. The hackle feathers of his neck smelled like a plum tree, or grass, or like eucalyptus. The family’s mynah bird, she remembered, “smelled dusty, except on his earlobe.” They had a parrot, too, and she noticed that the bird was particular about the kind of toast he ate, “and whether we buttered it with the real thing or margarine.”

Nevitt went on to become an ornithologist whose discoveries stunned the scientific establishment. She found birds doing the impossible. Certain seabirds, for example, were constructing living, moving maps of a seemingly featureless ocean using an extraordinarily acute sense of smell, something most experts believed birds did not possess at all. From vast distances, they can detect a chemical called dimethyl sulfide, generated when krill, their main food source, devours phytoplankton.

Nevitt is just one of a colorful parade of maverick scientists who appear in science and nature writer Jennifer Ackerman’s splendid and spellbinding new book, The Bird Way. This apt sequel to her best-selling The Genius of Birds (2016) showcases new science that is transforming our understanding of what it means to be a bird.

That scientists have traditionally underestimated birds’ intellect is unsurprising. Only since English primatologist Jane Goodall’s studies, begun in 1960, have most researchers accepted that even chimpanzees have thoughts, feelings, memories, and culture. And only recently have they accorded similar respect to other big-brained, long-lived creatures such as whales and elephants, which are mammals like us.

Birds are feathered dinosaurs—the only ones to survive the meteor impact that wiped out all other members of their clade 65 million years ago. Because birds are so unlike us, and we imagine ourselves at some evolutionary pinnacle, they have been dismissed as intellectual featherweights, “bird brains,” unsophisticated primitives worthy of our admiration only because they fly.

Today, happily, our understanding of bird behavior is undergoing a revolution, and nearly every page of this often lyrical and sometimes funny book contains some fresh wonder.  A recent study of 28 species of birds, from finches to emus, found that neurons in bird brains are more numerous and more densely packed than ours. Pound per pound, Ackerman asserts, they “have the potential to provide much higher cognitive clout” than mammalian brains. Recently, too, we’ve discovered that birds see “unimaginable explosions of color and pattern, hear sounds inaudible to our ears, smell the shape of whole landscapes.” The foliage of a rainforest, for example, appears to them not as a uniform mass of green, as it does to us, but as detailed, three-dimensional layers of contrasting, individual leaves. Flitting through it, they communicate detailed information to their fellows, and to a variety of other species, often using syntax, a hallmark of human language.

Birds play. They lie. They woo, choose mates, and raise families in ways far more varied and elaborate than we ever imagined. Rather than pairing off, some birds breed cooperatively. In the Amazon, two to four unrelated pairs of greater anis, plus a couple of nonbreeding helpers, work together to create one giant nest into which all the females lay eggs at once. The whole group shares parenting responsibilities and may stay together for a decade or more. Birds can time-travel in their minds: scrub jays not only recall where they hid their food but retrieve the items that might spoil sooner than those that will keep. Perhaps most astonishing, some birds have the ability to construct and employ tools: at least three species of raptors are known to drop burning sticks onto flammable brush to start fresh fires to flush out prey.

Even though almost all of us see birds every day, somehow we’ve missed most of this—until now. How could we have been so blind? To what do we credit these revelations?

“Scientists are shedding biases that have blinkered research for generations,” Ackerman writes. One of those biases is that, until recently, most scientists who studied birds were men. Women like Nevitt—who confessed that she was “stunned at how deeply ridiculed I was” when she initially presented her findings—are joining the ranks and rewriting our understanding of bird behavior. They are overturning some of our fundamental beliefs.

Now, for instance, we know that not only males but female birds, too, sing—and sing complex, important songs. Female prothonotary warblers, bright yellow birds with bluish-gray wings, sing unique songs to win males in the early stages of courtship. The females of many of our common and beloved bird species, including scrub jays and dark-eyed juncos, are singers. “Female song is no anomaly or aberration but widespread,” Ackerman writes. How did we miss that? Because male ornithologists concentrated on male birds. And when female researchers heard female birds singing in the field, they did not report their findings because they thought that birdsong had already been thoroughly studied by their male counterparts.

As it turns out, birds have a great deal to say, and what we are hearing is humbling. As a graduate student, British behavioral ecologist Jessica McLachlan mic’d herself up to record the reactions of fairy-wrens to various alarm calls being played on a speaker. Research like hers is showing that bird vocalizations often follow language-like rules and can be very specific, relaying not only the presence of a predator but where it is, whether it’s stationary or moving, and whether others should mob the intruder to chase it away. What birds are saying is so useful that at least 70 species of vertebrates, including chipmunks, red squirrels, and three species of lizards, are known to attend to and respond appropriately to bird alarm calls.

One day while McLachlan was recording, a huge spider fell on her shirt. Her microphone array picked up and recorded her reaction: “Ahhhhh!” When she replayed the recording to her family, no one could tell a thing about the threat that so startled her—not even whether the danger was close or far away. “All they got,” writes Ackerman, “was her fear.”

In comparison with birds, pretty lame.

The litany of examples with which Ackerman illustrates birds’ heretofore-unknown abilities, which often put ours to shame, are why I love this book. The Bird Way shows us a new way to view birds, yes—but perhaps even better, through their eyes, intellect, and more-than-human senses, it lets birds reveal to us the hidden realities of our shared world.


Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Sy Montgomery is the author of 30 books, including The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness.


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