It’s hard to say when exactly my interest in birds crystallized. There were many influences throughout my childhood. My grandma was a bit of a birder, my family always had bird feeders and many of the most memorable TV/cartoon characters from my childhood were birds: Darkwing Duck, Howard the Duck, Woodstock, Foghorn Leghorn, Huey, Dewey and Louie, and yes, even Tweety Bird. I vividly remember watching with fascination a Jack Hanna special on the near extinction of the dinosaur-looking California condor and the now successful efforts to revive the wild population. As a kid I always found seagulls to be quite handsome, quirky and almost charming. As an adult, I am stopped in my tracks at the sight of a sandhill crane or a great blue heron. When I hear the hoo of an owl or the sound of a wood pecker, I always look up. I consider a bald eagle sighting to be among the most special treats of being outdoors.
While I don’t consider myself a birder, (as I don’t formerly track what I see or go outside with the specific intention of spotting birds) my interest continues to grow. When I discovered a book called The Genius of Birds, by science and nature writer, Jennifer Ackerman, reading it was a no-brainer. Following its release in April 2016, it became a New York Times bestseller.
As the title would hint, this book is about how smart birds truly are. Traditionally, birds have gotten a bum rap when it comes to intelligence. I will be the first to admit I assumed small brain meant not very smart. However, with years of extensive bird research piling up, Ackerman reveals that it’s more clear than ever that many species of birds including corvids (crows, jays, ravens, magpies) rank right up there with humans, apes and dolphins in intelligence/learning/resilience.
Here are five of my favorite bird facts and takeaways from The Genius of Birds. [I attribute all the facts and figures below to Ackerman’s book and her sources.]
1. Birds split off in evolution from mammals more than 300 million years ago. Birds evolved from dinosaurs, and while humans evolved to get bigger and be mobile, birds got smaller for flight. While bird brains are much smaller than humans, they have an entirely different neural architecture than humans and mammals, and a much denser system of neurons. That is why we can’t compare intelligence simply based on brain size.
2. Not only have birds joined humans and apes in the rare art of toolmaking, by using, bending and manipulating sticks to get at tasty grubs, snacks, and other treats, they learn to wisely adapt to their environment. You may have seen this (viral) video of wicked smart crows in Japan that learned to crack nuts by taking advantage of the crosswalk system and passing cars.
3. While humans are considered to be the most successful species, the world today is home to more the 300-400 billion individual birds. From the coasts, to the desert and jungle, to the mountains above, and everything in between, birds have evolved to live on all continents, across nearly every climate type and habitat.
4. Songbirds are special. Learning to sing is like learning to speak (which African grey parrots have learned to do), with even more precision. While we have a larynx, birds have a syrinx, made up of two chambers deep in the bird chest. Mockingbirds and canaries can contract and relax the muscles of the syrinx with sub-millisecond precision (a hundred times faster than the blink of an eye — try to comprehend that). A winter wren can sing thirty six notes per second (!!!). A mockingbird can nearly exactly imitate more than 40 other bird calls and songs.
5. Birds have an insane ability to mind map their immediate surroundings and perhaps vast sections of the world. Some birds migrate 40,000 miles every year from Greenland to Antartica, without ever getting lost. During one experiment, migrating birds were plucked from their path and placed 2,000 miles off course. They almost immediately figured out how to get back on path. There were 54,000 pigeons used by the United States in World World II as messengers (and perhaps triple that used by the UK). Pigeons are still used in Cuba to deliver election results from remote parts of the country. Some species of birds can hide (cache) up to 5,000 seeds, in unique locations, and remember where each are.
I highly recommend this book to anyone with a fascination for our flying friends.
Many of the images used in this post are complements of my dear friend Emily Wilson. Enjoy more of her bird pictures.
Other times I blogged about birds: