In The Genius of Birds, Jennifer Ackerman argues that humans have long misunderstood the avian brain. Any dodo can tell you our bias against the animal is woven into our language. All our bird slurs essentially translate to "dummy." Plus, bird brains are small. They don't have a cortex like we do, and their brain cells, Ackerman says, are organized into weird little clusters, almost like garlic bulbs. A kind of linguistic and scientific speciesism may explain why scientists have trained their attention on dolphins and primates.
But recent research, which Ackerman folds effortlessly into a series of lyrical chapters, reveals that bird brains are actually much larger than you'd expect for their body size. And when it comes to intelligence, she says, what really matters is not the size of the brain but the density of neurons and the connections between them.
Parrots, corvids, and magpies all have densely packed neurons, on par with what you'd find in primates. Their neural pathways are similar to ours, and they use them to learn their songs, to recognize human faces, and to orient themselves in space.
But are we really so blinded by all these recently unearthed scientific facts that we can't see common sense when it waddles up and pecks our eyes out? Chickens are dumb! Sparrows fly into windows! If they really are "capable of complex cognition, which involves learning, memory, decision making, planning, and rationing," like Ackerman says they are, then why do they look so stupid?
I called Ackerman to demand answers.
Chickens are idiots. How can you call them geniuses?
They're not the brightest bulbs in the chandelier, but they do have some things going on. A friend of mine shared this story about his five chickens. His son was tired of rats getting into the chicken food, so he made a special food container. The chickens had to step on a lever in order to release a small amount of food, and they did, and this behavior was picked up by the baby chickens. So they can learn! They can alert fellow chickens to the presence of predators. And they have calls that distinguish predators coming by air and by land, so they're not complete idiots by any stretch.
But what about when birds fly into windows? Why would they do that if they weren't idiots?
Because they didn't evolve with windows! I have to say, it's really impressive how birds have adapted to all the changes wrought by humans. Their environment has changed radically, and many are able to adapt to all those changes. In that context, flying into windows is an honest mistake.
You write a lot about the New Caledonian crow, perhaps the smartest of all birds. They use a little hook tool to get to other tools to get to food, which suggests that they have an abstract idea of what a tool is. But do they use those tools for anything else. Like for murder?
There is one example of a bird using a tool as a javelin against another bird—it was a jay—but no, it's not common for birds to use tools to get anything but food. If they make a good tool, though, they'll keep it with them. They don't have a tool belt, but they'll carry it around in their foot.
Is there a range of intelligence among jays, for instance, or do all jays have the same smarts?
There's a range of cognitive abilities within species. Birds are very much individuals, and there's tremendous variation in their cognitive abilities. There's a real range of intelligence with bowerbirds, for instance, and the females gauge the cognitive abilities of the males. They judge them based on how symmetrically they built their bowers, how many decorations they accumulate, how well they dance, and how well they mimic the calls of other birds.
I heard male bowerbirds make cool nests.
They're not nests. Those are platforms for seduction. No raising of young takes place there. The poor female, though, builds her own nest. She doesn't get any help from the male at all.
Okay, the male bowerbirds build these lovely bowers, but why haven't they made anything truly awesome and big like the Empire State Building?
Well, the male builds the bower because it's the place for a female to watch him as he does his thing. These bowers are made of hundreds of sticks of equal length and shape, and they're all straight. It requires a mental tool called templating. He sits in the center of the bower and goes back and forth between the two sides to make it symmetrical. So it's not about building something elaborate, it's about building a place where she can sit and watch him do his dance.
Do birds fall in love?
You have parrots that seem to want to be near their mates, some feeling of a bond that makes them feel that they need to seek closeness. That's not our definition of love, but it seems to be some variation of love. There's variation of how people love, too. I personally feel that animals are fully capable of affection and love toward mates in particular, but also toward their flocks. They studied this in ravens—they have shifting groups, but they remember relations with individuals within those different groups for long periods of time.
Not sure if you have this info readily available, but which birds have the closest divorce rate to humans?
They used to say, "If you want to stay together forever with your mate, marry a swan." But the truth is that most birds are not monogamous. There's extra-pair mating. They have a mate they'll raise a family with, but they get around. This is true for both female and male birds.
If birds are so great and social and smart, how come they don't help their human friends be better beings?
Some of them do! I would argue that if you spend enough time with them, they'll have a positive influence on you. And, you know, there are birds like honeyguides. They've developed these relationships with humans where they'll hop from one branch to another and call to alert humans to a beehive. The humans open the hive to get the honey, and the birds can get whatever remains.
Sweet. Okay, so let's say that we've misrepresented birds in our language and in popular culture, and that birds can, in fact, be as smart as dolphins or primates. What does this new reality mean for us?
Our new understanding of the intelligence of birds is making us question the nature of intelligence and how it evolved, and maybe appreciate how there are different kinds of intelligence. The things that you and I are talking about are things that humans do well, too. But birds have remarkable capacities and skills that leave us in the dust, like their capacity for spatial orientation. A hummingbird can remember a particular flower in a particular field, and it won't revisit that flower again until it has refilled itself with nectar, and so somehow it's keeping track of which flowers it has fed from and the rate of nectar refill. That's not a kind of intelligence we possess. And we don't understand it! We don't understand how a bird can find its way to a place it's never been, or how it finds its way back if it's been displaced by a thousand miles. So there's a lot we have to learn about what intelligence is, and the forms that it takes in different organisms, and how it came to be.
Are you familiar with the birds of the Pacific Northwest? Which ones should we keep an eye out for?
I happen to love crows. I think they are wicked smart. Those are the birds that are going to be running the planet at some point. But there are smaller, lesser known birds like black-capped chickadees, too. They have this incredible system of communication. When a chickadee calls, it specifies the type of predator and the magnitude of threat that the predator represents. They use the calls to summon reinforcements. If there's a hawk or owl, they want birds to mob the menace. When I learned about this phenomenon in chickadees, it changed the way I heard them. When I pass by them in the woods, I now know that they're registering my presence, and also the hawk above them.
Your last three books were all about the human body. Now you've written a book about birds. Are you going to write another bird book?
After writing this book on birds, I'm really kind of hooked, so I'm going to do another bird book, yes. I'm really happy to be back in the natural world, focused outward instead of inward.