by Jennifer Ackerman
Publication Date: May 5, 2020
Publisher: Scribe Publishers
'There is the mammal way and there is the bird way.' This is one scientist's pithy distinction between mammal brains and bird brains- two ways to make a highly intelligent mind. But the bird way is much more than a unique pattern of brain wiring, and, lately, scientists have taken a new look at bird behaviours. What they are finding is upending the traditional view of how birds conduct their lives, how they communicate, forage, court, breed, and survive. They're also revealing not only the remarkable intelligence underlying these activities, and disturbing abilities we once considered uniquely our own - deception, manipulation, cheating, kidnapping, and infanticide - but also ingenious communication between species, cooperation, collaboration, altruism, culture, and play.
Drawing on personal observations, the latest science, and her bird-related travel around the world, from the tropical rainforests of eastern Australia and the remote woodlands of northern Japan, to the rolling hills of lower Austria and the islands of Alaska's Kachemak Bay, Ackerman shows there is clearly no single bird way of being. In every respect - in plumage, form, song, flight, lifestyle, niche, and behaviour - birds vary. It's what we love about them. As E.O. Wilson once said, when you have seen one bird, you have not seen them all.
I loved this book so much, I started putting together a post for it and realised I was going to end up writing something half as long as the book itself, with pictures most of my friends have already seen. Thankfully I realised just how much work that would be, and frankly, Jennifer Ackerman’s done a better job that I’d ever be able to do.
The Bird Way is sort of a follow-up to The Genius of Birds, which I also highly recommend. Both bring birds to life in a way that highlights just how unique, how smart, and how under-appreciated they are as a species by the general population. The Bird Way focuses on some of the even more unique outliers of the species; the ones that defy expectations either by their intelligence, their capacity for play, their weird mating rituals, communications, or parenting styles (or the lack thereof).
After reading this, one comes to terms with the idea that there is truly nothing new under the sun. There are birds that commit chicknapping, and birds that leave their eggs in everybody else’s nests.. There are birds that murder other birds, rape their females and commit acts of necrophilia. It’s all very sordid, but their are also birds that go out of their way to feed another species’ fledglings, warn other species about predators, and practice cooperative, communal parenting. Birds that sing so beautifully that symphonies have been written around their song, and birds that create literal walls of sound that chase out every competitor in their vicinity.
Obviously, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s easy, accessible reading, but Ackerman has done her research and includes a comprehensive Further Reading at the back of the book, broken down by chapters, that serves as a list of citations. I’ll admit, part of why I enjoyed the book as much as I did was that while her focus was international, a lot of the birds discussed were Australian and ones I’ve been privileged enough to see myself. It’s probably this first hand experience that pushed the book solidly into 5 star territory for me; perhaps without it I might have rated it 4.5 stars. Either way, it’s a book I’d happily recommend to anyone interested in not just birds, but it how we are discovering just how wrong we’ve been about what makes humanity “special”. And if the section about Keas doesn’t make you smile, and perhaps chuckle out loud, you must be having a really bad day.