Jennifer Ackerman has been writing about science and nature for three decades. During that time she’s published eight books, including “The Genius of Birds,” which has been translated into 20 languages.
And now she’s come out with “The Bird Way,” in which she takes a new look at how birds talk, work, play, parent and think.
She starts the book with a quote: “There is the mammal way and there is the bird way,” an observation she calls “one scientist’s pithy distinction between mammal brains and bird brains: two ways to make a highly intelligent mind.” She goes on to say that the bird way is much more than a unique pattern of brain wiring. “It’s flight and egg and feathers and song.”
Watch birds for a while, she claims, and you see that different species do even the most mundane things in radically different ways. Some of these differences show up in expressions we humans use to describe our own extreme behaviors. We call ourselves owls or larks, swans or ugly ducklings, hawks or doves, good eggs or bad eggs. We are dodos or chickens or popinjays or proud as peacocks. And the list goes on.
“We are stool pigeons and sitting ducks. Culture vultures. Vulture capitalists. Love birds. An albatross around the neck. Off on a wild goose chase. Cuckoo. We are naked as a jaybird or in full feather. Fully fledged, empty nesters, no spring chicken. We are early birds, jail birds, rare birds, odd birds.”
As the famous biologist E.O.Wilson once said, “When you have seen one bird, you have not seen them all.”
“The Bird Way” explores the range of surprising and sometimes alarming behaviors that birds perform daily. In recent years, scientists have taken a new look at all sorts of bird activity, and what they’ve found is upending traditional views.
“It’s also revealing the remarkable strategies and intelligence underlying those activities,” writes Ackerman, “abilities once considered uniquely our own, or at least the sole domain of a few clever mammals - deception, manipulation, cheating, kidnapping, and infanticide, but also ingenious communication between species, cooperation, collaboration, altruism, culture, and play.”
Some of these extraordinary behaviors are biological conundrums that seem to push the boundaries of what we think of as birdness: a mother that kills her own infant sons, and another that selflessly tends to the young of other birds as if they were her own; a bird that collaborates in an extraordinary way with one species - ours - but parasitizes another in gruesome fashion; birds that give gifts and birds that steal, birds that dance or drum, that paint their creations or paint themselves; birds that build walls of sound to keep out intruders and birds that summon playmates with a special call - and may hold the secret to our own penchant for playfulness and the evolution of laughter.
“Earth is home to well over ten thousand different species of birds,” says Ackerman, “many with marvelous, often Seussian, names - the zigzag heron and white-bellied go-away bird, speckled mousebird and naked-faced spiderhunter, the Inaccessible Island rail, pale chanting goshawk, shining sunbeam, military macaw and wandering tattler, a yellow-legged stanza of elegance I watched probe for crustaceans and worms on the fringes of a tiny island in Alaska’s Kachemak Bay.”
If you, dear reader, would like to learn more about the feathered marvels with which we share the planet, I urge you to read “The Bird Way.”
Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com.