In the category of “books likely to only appeal to the .01%”, I give you this solid gold publication. As I live in Australia for now, and I enjoy stalking its amazing birds with my camera (purely amateur hour and likely even more entertaining for the birds than it is for me), and I’m rapidly running out of ‘new-to-me’ birds in my area, I grabbed this on a whim when I saw it at my local bookstore.
It exceeded my expectations, to say the least. Broken down by state, then by region, complete with common birds, not-so-common birds, descriptions, maps and suggested road trips to bird hotspots! I fell in love with this feature, as it includes day trips, weekend trips and dedicated bird-stalking 10 day trips. It then capped itself with a cherry on top by highlighting areas that also included interesting non-birding things to do, for those unfortunate spouses such as mine, who like birds well enough, but don’t find the need to stalk them, yet still find themselves dragged along for the ride.
I wish I could say this was part of a larger, international publication series, so I could urge my other bird loving friends to find their locals edition, but it’s published by CSIRO, which stands for The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation; it’s an Australian Government agency responsible for scientific research, so unlikely to part of a greater publishing series. But if anyone reading this is ever in Australia and intends to add some birds to their lists, you can’t go wrong picking this book up beforehand.
'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.