cover image The Genius of Birds

The Genius of Birds

Jennifer Ackerman. Penguin Press, $27.95 (352p) ISBN 978-1-59420-521-7

Popular science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold) puts paid to the notion of being birdbrained with this survey of the observational and experimental evidence for impressive bird cognition. She explores birds' capacities for tool use, socialization, navigation, mimicry, discrimination, and possibly even theory of mind. Ackerman interviews specialists without overindulging in research travelogue, keeping centered on her feathered subjects rather than on the human interactions, and urges against anthropomorphizing bird behavior, correlating specific behaviors to generalized intelligence, or benchmarking the value of avian mental skills to that of humans. But her most interesting bits of trivia play to that urge: undergraduates who fail at mental simulations at which some birds succeed, bowerbirds trained to distinguish good human art from bad, Thomas Jefferson's mockingbird singing "popular songs of the day," and pigeons learning to open automatic cafeteria doors. Though Ackerman's focus is mainly ethological, she also speculates on the possible relationships between complex task completion and evolutionary fitness. This light popular science read doesn't present much new framing or insight; Ackerman seeks out current research to discover a few surprises, such as a possible role for olfactory cues in navigation, but doesn't point to or create any big conceptual shifts. (Apr.)