‘The Genius of Birds’

Jennifer Ackerman, Penguin Press, 2017, $17 paperback

Read Jennifer Ackerman’s engaging book and I promise that you’ll never look at birds in the same way again. This science writer picked the brains of avian researchers around the globe to show us that birds are deeply intelligent, complex creatures with quick and flexible minds.

Many have read about New Caledonian crows using tools — a skill once thought to be uniquely human — to pry insects out of tree holes. Ackerman poses an interesting question: Does the use of tools require a big brain or does using tools stimulate brain growth? Birds that cache food, such as blue jays, use cunning and stealth to fool any watching birds, and birds that maintain long-term relationships are attuned to the needs and even moods of their partners.

Much is being learned about birds, and our views have changed drastically in the past several decades. Most birds have social smarts and individual personalities, far from the image of little automatons ruled by instinct. Birds learn from each other and from their life experiences, and their capabilities in some realms, notably navigation, far outshine our own. Young songbirds learn how to sing in the same way human youngsters pick up speech, by listening, experimenting and practicing endlessly, babbling and stuttering and stammering along the way.

With wit and empathy, Ackerman builds a picture of how birds live their lives. Her book will give you a new appreciation for the wondrous creatures living among us.

Val Cunningham