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jenn

Murder by Death

I read cozy and historical mysteries, a bit of Paranormal/UF, and to mix it up, I read science and gardening books on occasion.

The Genius of Birds

The Genius of Birds - Jennifer Ackerman

It seemed natural to move from a book about earthworms to a book about birds, and while the reading demographic for this one will naturally be larger, it's still not a book that will appeal to the masses.  

 

It should though.  I'm not a dedicated birdwatcher, but I find them fascinating, endearing, entertaining and sometimes comical.  And it turns out some of them are impressively clever.  In fact, accuse me of anthropomorphism if you'd like, but I'll go so far as to say intelligent.  

 

Not all of them of course; 15 seconds with any one of my chickens would put paid to that idea.  But we all know about crows and their ability to make and use tools; they can also play the game known as Concentration - the memory game where you have to match up images.  Going one step further, the crows, when asked to match a card with another that had a corresponding theme (i.e. match a card with 2 yellow squares with a card that has 2 yellow circles), the crows could immediately do it successfully.  That's cognition. 

 

Then there's Alex, the African Grey Parrot who not only knew hundreds of vocabulary words and how to use them in correct context, but could also categorise objects correctly and when asked how many objects were in a category could correctly answer 8 out of 10 times.

 

Clark's nutcrackers and scrub jays collect food for the winter and hide it in hidden caches.  These hidden caches can number up to 5,000 different locations in a single season for nutcrackers, and for scrub jays those caches include fresh fruit, insects and other perishable items.  7 out of 10 times the nutcrackers will go directly to the precise location of their stashes - that's 3500 little caches of food, buried anywhere in an area from a dozen square miles to hundreds of square miles, that they can immediately recall to the millimetre, as necessary.  The scrub jays keep track of what is in each of their caches, which caches have perishable items that need to be eaten first, and where those caches are.

 

I'm lucky if I can keep track of my keys and phone for more than 24 hours.

 

There's so much more, but I'll stick with the highlights.  And my personal favourite (I think - it's hard to choose):  The Satin Bowerbird.  The male satin bowerbird builds bowers as a way to woo a female (or females).  These aren't nests - no mating or rearing takes place in these bowers.  Rather they are monuments to, and for, seduction; the stage and props he'll use as the backdrop for his wooing dance: 

 

picture via viralforest.com

 

If that's not fancy enough to impress, how about the efforts of the Vogelkop Gardener Bowerbird?

picture via thewildernessalternative.com / the constant gardener

 

Each species of bower building bowerbirds is partial to a specific color.  Satin bowerbirds are all about the blues; in fact when scientists placed scarlet items in their bowers, the birds immediately ran in and removed those items and made sure they could not be seen from their bower.  When they couldn't be removed, they buried them.

 

The Genius of Birds is full of information like this, written in an easy conversational style but including the science, the studies, the theories and counter-theories.  Not enough to scare off the non-science bird-lovers, but more than enough to satisfy the armchair naturalist.  What's missing is referenced in a very comprehensive notes section at the back.  There are a few references to types of studies I abhor, no matter what anyone would argue about their scientific merit, but they're passed over quickly.

 

If you're interested in a broad overview of the under appreciated gifts birds have, and their misunderstood intelligence, this is a great book.