The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think
© 2020 Jennifer Ackerman
When reading an introduction to a book on anthropology, one can’t help but be impressed by the variety of human cultures: we have all found many ways to be human. After reading The Bird Way, I can only say the same thing about our avian neighbors. Many generalizations about birds prove to only be true about populations that have been previously studied; when a variety of species across the world are examined, birds show off a staggering variety of behaviors and abilities. Here, Jennifer Ackerman examines avian intelligence, childrearing, courtship, communication, and play.
Why do birds sing? Most reading this might answer that male birds sing to advertise themselves and defend their territory – and this is, in fact, typical behavior for many birds in the temperate zones of the northern hemisphere. But in other regions like the tropics, female birds sing with gusto – and that realization has made temperate aviologists backtrack and listen more carefully to their familiar roosts, where – having put aside the idea that singing is purely about territory and sex, the quieter, more infrequent voice of temperate ladybirds is suddenly obvious. The realization that assumptions about birds have been based on a small subset of birds familiar to western scientists sets the stage for the book, which reviews the wide array of bird gifts and tactics.
The review of behavior is fascinating in itself, which is why animal documentaries are such a hit in general – but Ackerman goes beyond to write on what these behaviors tell us about bird species. We learn that Australia is a hotbed of novel bird behavior, for instance, and is regarded by scientists as the origin point for birdsong itself. We learn of varied behavior that comes not just from biological differences, but cultural ones – for young birds learn their songs from their parents, and older birds can learn new ways to exploit available food sources, and pass it on to others. Birds in general, not just corvids, are quite clever – and surprisingly playful. Perhaps playful experimentation is how they familiarize themselves with the world, and learn how to change things to their advantage. Ackerman reviews some truly surprising information, pointing out how some birds who use brushfires to hunt by purposely spreading the fires to flush out fresh quarry. In the examples cited, the species in question picked up burning sticks from the fire zone, flew to an area beyond the firebreak created by firemen, an let the sticks go to create fresh blazes. Many birds remember what happens in their environment and apparently plan accordingly, and their senses often surpass our own. What looks like a bizarre jumping-up-and-down habit to us is, in a bird’s eye, an artful somersault that uses sound and vision in sythensis to mesmerize an object d’amor. Human eyes can’t perceive either the speed of the acrobatics, or the ultraviolet change in coloration as the bird performs its act. Bird language’ complexity is also often hidden from human hears, so rapid-fire that we miss the nuances.
Of all the bird books I’ve read in the last year, The Bird Way is by far the strongest. I’m now more than a little curious about Ackerman’s previous work, The Genius of Birds.
The Thing with Feathers, Noah Strycker
Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace, Carl Safina
What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, Jon Young