Monday, 26 February 2018

Who is really the bird brain?

It was nine years ago when I first looked at a bird with anything more than passing interest.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like our feathered friends – rather that I hadn’t really expended enough mental energy to regard them as anything other than feather brained.

But in 2009, The Other Half and I were in Berlin and decided to take in the city’s zoo. In the event, our visit was cut short by a storm, but we were impressed enough that we returned before our week was out.

Aviaries are the sort of places I would previously have skipped, but with a quality camera around my neck, what stopped me in my tracks was a king vulture.

A family nearby was trying to attract its attention through the fence, but it maintained a regal sense of aloofness – ignoring them completely and opting instead to stare me down. That bird had attitude. And I got great pictures.

Since then, I have looked out for birds – and always make a beeline for any vultures. Ive have even been able to identify one in the wild, flying above a Pyrenean town – a lammergeier.

Anyway, fast forward to last autumn and a lunchtime browse in the shop at the near-to-work British Library. Such visits have to be strictly rationed, since it’s well nigh impossible to walk out without having added to our own already creaking shelves.

On this occasion, I picked up a 2017 paperback version of The Genius of Birds.

By this stage, it was some time after my ‘ravens rock’ thing had first blossomed, but the initial enticement to Jennifer Ackerman’s book was a rapid flick through the index to see if ravens merited a mention.

Standing in the shop reading a brief section on how researchers had been on the receiving end of a pair of ravens using weapons against them (dug-up stones) was all it took. I bought the book.

A few weeks ago, waiting for something else to arrive, I plucked it down from the shelf and started to read. Nothing had suggested just how compulsive I’d find it.

Every time I visit the hospital my father now frequents regularly, I talk to the crows that rule the roost on the recreation ground opposite – we know each other well – so it delights me that corvids rate very highly in the avian intelligence stakes.

The early part of the book includes fascinating information about the tool use of New Caledonian crows, the Einsteins of the bird world, but other corvids feature too.

However, there was a whole world of bird brains to discover.

The chickadee, for instance, with it’s astonishingly varied call that can be used to warn its community of a nearby predator and even how threatening that predator is.

We can read about the architectural and aesthetic works of bowerbirds and learn about the astonishing capacity that pigeons have for navigation. It’ll never be so easy to simply dismiss them as ‘rats with wings’ after reading this.

King vulture with attitude, Berlin 2009
In a German experiment, it was found that homing pigeons that were allowed to fly around outside their loft and get to know its surrounds, and then participate in races of up to 175 miles, had hippocampi that were 10% larger than homing pigeons that had not been allowed outside a spacious loft/aviary.

Here, Ackerman adds a fascinating note on research done with humans, showing that experienced black cab drivers in London have more “grey matter” in the rear of their hippocampus than bus drivers or new cabbies.
Which begs the question of whether navigational tech such as GPS is damaging to human intelligence.

The author is always careful not to over-egg any puddings by anthropomorphising avian intelligence, but that works both ways, as she urges us not to consider ‘intelligence’ only in human terms, even where intelligence does not easily correspond with the human understanding of the word.

And at the end of a book that constantly makes you go ‘wow’, Ackerman brings everything together within the context of climate change and what that might mean for birds.

This is popular science, but don’t let that suggest that it’s sloppy. There’s plenty of science here and that can take some serious reading attention. But from start to finish, it’s also an absolute joy. I’ll never again consider birds to be rather boring.

• The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman is published by Corsair and available in a variety of formats.

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