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Avian Creativity and Imagination

A review by Sanford Sorkin

The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman

Random House, 2016

340 pages, softcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14594P

My introduction to the genius of birds came on a sunny afternoon in Arizona. My wife and I were enjoying some wine in an outdoor Phoenix café, almost alone as we enjoyed the weather and flower gardens. Midway through our first glass, a Great-tailed Grackle alit on the table next to us, apparently intent on something sweet. He hopped to the center of the table and removed the lid from the sugar bowl, which he set gently on the table before carefully examining the contents. With a repeated, very deliberate and swift motion, the grackle tossed away all the yellow, blue, and pink packets, leaving only the real sugars in white and brown. I gather he had no taste for artificial sweeteners. When he got down to the brown and white packets, he made his selection and pecked it open to consume the contents.

Maybe the bird could distinguish between real and artificial. He clearly knew which bowl had the sugar, and he remembered the packet colors. To put it a little more cautiously, perhaps the bird was just lucky in selecting the sugar bowl on the first try, and maybe he knew only the color of the one packet with real sugar. But after reading Jennifer Ackerman’s book, I’m guessing this bird knew what he was doing.

My dining-with-birds experience continued. Minutes later, a pair of grackles landed on a chair at another table, where a man was preparing to eat his steak. The birds made an amazing screeching racket. When the poor fellow looked to the left and made a shooing motion, another bird swooped in grabbed his steak and flew off. Was it a learned grackle behavior? Should we attribute an altruistic motivation to the screeching bird helper? Was this a true example of cooperative food gathering? Were other birds observing these adults to see just how it’s done?

These thieving grackle episodes were impressive, but I never fully appreciated the intricacies of what we had witnessed until The Genius of Birds changed the way I observe birds.

If your friends and family know you are interested in birds, birding, or neuroscience, then in addition to the copy you purchased, you have been given another two or three copies of this book as gifts.

Books fall into categories. This one may find its place on the birding shelf, or possibly the science shelf, next to the neurologist Oliver Sacks’s works. Whichever shelf they land on, certain books find prominent places in our libraries, while others will be left for our children to deal with one day. The Genius of Birds is among those select few to deserve a permanent spot in your personal library, and reading it will probably compel you to annotate passages, or even to underline some new vocabulary.

Ever since an elementary school teacher alerted me to the evils of writing in books, I’ve found it a necessary component of enjoying them, and remembering and applying what I’ve learned. Remembering what we have learned is good for obvious reasons, while application is an entirely different matter. Ackerman’s writing has inspired a considerable number of these marginal notes.

A Ruby-throated Hummingbird visits our garden every day. Watching it flit from bloom to bloom has always made me feel a bit lucky to be there when the bird made its rounds. You need not always rely on luck, because the hummingbird adheres to a fairly tight schedule on its daily route. Ackerman discusses the remarkable map this bird must maintain in its brain to know not only where the flowers are, but when they can be expected to have nectar.

Going a step beyond identifying birds for friends, birders are frequently asked to explain behavior like this that a friend has observed or heard about. Taking my lead from Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, my pat answer has been that the behavior is a consequence of the desire for food or sex, and the food component may only be there to keep the bird alive for the procreation. Now I’m not so certain. Maybe it is not all about a self-centered atavistic stimulus-and-response paradigm. Maybe birds, like people, do some things simply because they are enjoyable. It is also reasonable to assume that birds, like people, learn from just about everything they do.

The comparison that I think this book deserves is to the many works of Oliver Sacks, with their examples and explanations of the extraordinary capabilities and compensations of the human brain. The research Ackerman reports in The Genius of Birds documents similar abilities in the human brain. There has always been a strong tendency to anthropomorphize birds and their behavior, and maybe it is warranted.

A creative mockingbird lives in a nearby park, and it has added to its considerable repertoire a very annoying and very loud rendition of a car alarm. In the past, I would have thought of this as simply a humorous pastime on the part of the bird, certainly of no consequence beyond the pleasure of watching surprised hikers who thought they were in the woods far from the nearest parking lot.

But now I wonder why the bird has incorporated this song into its extensive mental library. Is it vocalizing to impress another mockingbird that appreciates automobiles? Is it a warning of some overhead danger, or is the bird simply getting a laugh out of human reactions? The answer is not as simple and inconsequential as we once thought. On the surface, this behavior does not appear to be related to food or procreation. It does, however, inspire me to attribute creativity and imagination to the list of other identifying avian characteristics. It also makes me want to reassess the other bird activities I see in the field and in my yard.

We have at least one deep-black and iridescent starling in our yard. (There may be more than one, I really can’t tell them apart.) Much to our dismay, this bird has a penchant for flower removal. It walks among the blooms until it finds what he is looking for, whatever that might be, and then snips the flower’s stem. If the bird picked up the fallen flower for a meal or as nesting material, I would understand. But it seems to stand there admiring its work and then leaves. After reading Ackerman, I suspect that there is some motivation I haven’t taken the time to research or appreciate. Is this bird practicing his aim and fine-tuning his binocular vision? Maybe the flower was in the way as it prepared to hunt a meal. I doubt that the bird was sharpening its bill, but could it possibly be cleaning it? One thing to be fairly certain of is that there is some motivation, and flower snipping is probably not a random activity.

The Genius of Birds will inspire you to delve further into the activity of birds and to speculate beyond the simplest motivations. Are we looking at a learned behavior, did the bird discover and learn this technique on its own, or is it possibly a behavior learned from another adult? Contemplating the alternatives adds a wondrous new dimension to even basic birdwatching.

Sanford Sorkin has been a birder and photographer for the past 10 years. Since retiring from teaching at Temple University in Philadelphia, he has had time for trips to Central America, the Lesser Antilles, and England, and to many part of the United States. Sorkin is a frequent lecturer at bird clubs and schools in New Jersey.

Recommended citation:

Sorkin, S. 2018. Avian creativity and imagination [a review of The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman]. Birding 50(3): 66–67.

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Birding Book Reviews publishes Birding magazine's reviews on line. Book reviews are edited by Rick Wright.
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