You’ve been out late, you have an important meeting in the morning, and you want to grab a few minutes of extra sleep. But as the sun rises, a cacophony of tweeting and chirruping erupts, sending you diving under the duvet.
As Jennifer Ackerman explains in The Genius of Birds, the dawn chorus is one of the many elegant strategies birds use to survive and prosper. It's a (mostly male) bird's way of saying: This patch is mine, why don't you drop by for a tasty worm? New scientific discoveries are showing that birds, long thought to be driven by simple instinct, are much more intelligent than we thought. (Watch clever birds solve an Aesop's fables-style puzzle.)
Speaking from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia, Ackerman explains how female birds are especially attracted to a “sexy syllable”; how food is the sixth language of love; and why we have to act urgently before climate change drives more bird species into extinction.
Why is calling someone a birdbrain not the insult we thought it was?
[Laughs] For a long time we thought that bird behavior was just driven by instinct and that bird brains were so small and primitive they were only capable of the simplest mental processes. Calling someone a birdbrain meant there wasn’t much going on upstairs. [Laughs] But over the past several years, we’ve come to realize that birds are a lot smarter than we thought. Their brains are arranged differently from ours in what turn out to be very sophisticated ways. Birds can reason on a par with small children; craft tools as well as the big primate toolmakers, like chimps and orangutans; use language in ways we do; make complex navigational decisions; and remember where they put things, sometimes better than humans. They can also understand the mental state of another individual, which is one of the foundations of empathy. Some birds, like African gray parrots, have a remarkable facility with numbers.
You say, “There are some 10,400 different bird species, more than double the number of mammal species.” How—and why—have they been so successful?
That’s a good question. One of the definitions of intelligence is the ability to adapt to and exploit different kinds of environments. Birds have been very good at this for a very long time! We’re still trying to sort out why birds are smart, but they seem to be able to solve problems in their environment in quite sophisticated ways. How do I recover food that’s hidden or if there’s competition for my food, how do I hide it so that it gets protected from others who might steal it? How do I defend my nesting and feeding territory and communicate effectively with other members of my flock or with my mate? Our brains have evolved complex cognitive skills in response to those kinds of challenges and so have the brains of birds, through very different evolutionary paths.
What is it that you (and so many other people) love about birds?
I’ve been a bird-watcher since I was a child. I grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, one of five girls in my family. My father had a very demanding job so there was not very much one-on-one time with him. But he used to take me bird-watching, starting when I was about seven or eight, down on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.
He was very good at identifying birdcalls, something he had learned at Boy Scout camp. He taught me how to enjoy the process of watching and listening to birds. It’s something that has stayed with me all my life. I love all the things that people love about birds: their flight, their song, their intense way of living, and their tremendous resourcefulness.
Thomas Jefferson had pet mockingbirds. Can you tell us about Dick, his favorite?
Dick was a beloved pet of Thomas Jefferson, and he was a very accomplished mimic. One of the reasons Jefferson bought him—and he was quite expensive, about $10-$15, or $125 today—was that he could sing all kinds of songs. He sang Scottish folk songs, French songs, and he could do all kinds of imitations of birds in the woods around Monticello. Jefferson would let Dick sit on his shoulder, put food in his mouth, and let the bird peck at it. He loved Dick's camaraderie and musicality. He even took Dick to Paris with him. The bird imitated the creak of the ship on the way over and for some time thereafter.
Pigeons have been referred to as ‘rats on wings,’ but you respect pigeons. Tell us why.
Pigeons have a bad rap, but they have all kinds of talents. They are good with numbers. They can put up to nine images in their proper order starting from the lowest to the highest. What pigeons are really good at is navigating. You can plop a bird down in an unfamiliar place, and it will find its way, using what scientists suspect is a map and compass strategy. The map part determines where they are when they’re released, and which way they need to go to get home. The compass strategy keeps them on course. They have to process multiple, different types of information: the sun and the stars, magnetic fields, landscape features, wind, weather, even smells.
A story I love is of a champion racing pigeon called Whitetail. The Royal Pigeon Racing Association was having its hundredth anniversary race across the English Channel. Whitetail took off with the other racing birds from France to cross the English Channel but, along with most of the other birds, vanished. It was called the great pigeon race disaster because they lost so many birds. Why those birds went astray is still a bit of a mystery but the remarkable thing is that, five years after he disappeared, Whitetail returned to his original loft.
One of the things that heralds spring is birdsong. Talk about the “sexy syllable.” What’s birdsong all about? Are they just singing for fun?
A sexy syllable is created when a male bird uses his vocal apparatus to sing with two different voices at the same time. Many female birds love these sophisticated, duet-like syllables. Birds sing to attract mates. The way they learn their songs is a kind of vocal learning, which is the same strategy that we use to learn language. They listen to a model, usually from a male tutor, a father bird, which they imitate and practice.
The precision is what is astounding. I was at a conference of birdsong specialists at Georgetown University and one of the presenters set up a competition between a zebra finch and a Ph.D. student to show which creature could best imitate a sound and repeat that sound precisely. He had spectrographs to determine the precision of the repetition. The zebra finch nailed it while the Ph.D. student couldn’t even come close!
A lot of bird behavior, like human behavior, has to do with keeping your partner happy. Tell us how the Eurasian jay intuits his mate’s state of mind, and what that tells us about bird empathy.
Eurasian jays are relatives of our blue jays and scrub jays here in the United States. The extraordinary thing is that they seem to understand the mental state of their mates. A male Eurasian jay courts his mate by bringing her food, which is standard in the bird world: It’s the sixth language of love. The cool thing is that the male jay makes choices about what he thinks his mate will like, not based on his own appetites but on what she has eaten before. Like, she’s had too many doughnuts; I’ll bring her some fruit! [Laughs] The foods in question are meal and wax worms, which are the great delight of the jay world. He seems to understand she has a mind of her own with desires that differ from his. That’s a critical component of the kind of social intelligence we call the “theory of mind”—the ability to determine mental states and desires of other beings and to understand that those states may be different from your own.
You tell a funny story about bowerbirds and their mating habits. Can you describe their elaborate ruses?
The male bowerbird spends most of his life trying to create a bower that will draw in his mate. This takes some doing. [Laughs] Most males don’t get to mate at all—just a few lucky guys who are really good at this. The male satin bowerbird builds a little archway out of sticks for the female to sit in and then gathers up all sorts of blue objects because female bowerbirds love their bling.
My favorite story about bowerbird artistry comes from Gerald Borgia, of the University of Maryland, about a spotted bowerbird that built a bower next to the studio of a stained glass artist. The bird then picked all these little fragments of colored stained glass and laid them out in his bower arranged by color, like a mosaic.
You refer to the New Caledonian crow as a boffin, or technological geek. Can you explain how these crows are techies? And who the real 007 is?
These birds are renowned for their incredible problem-solving abilities and for their capacity to make and use complex tools, which rivals the big primate toolmaking skills. The New Caledonian crow is the only species, besides humans, to make hook tools: sticks with little hooks at the end, which they use to wheedle out grubs from holes in a tree. They not only make these sophisticated tools. They also make different styles of tool in different parts of the island. Some scientists think these styles of toolmaking are passed down through each generation, which is a good definition of culture.
Some readers may remember that incredible video that went viral, showing a New Caledonian crow named 007 solving an elaborate eight-step puzzle. It’s really something to watch! He solves this puzzle involving many different steps; always keeping his goal in mind that there’s food at the end. At the end, he has to solve this Rube Goldberg contraption before he can finally get the food. And he does it in just a few minutes! I asked the researcher who studies him, Alex Taylor, whether 007 was an extraordinary example of an extraordinary bird and he said, “Yeah, he’s pretty smart; his whole family was smart.”
Extinction of bird species is on the rise, especially in the tropics. Why is this happening? And how can we stop it?
This is a huge issue. About a thousand bird species have gone extinct because of human activity. One of the reasons is that they can’t adapt to the rapid pace of human-induced change on our planet. One of the questions I ask in the book is: Which birds will survive and why? Are we humans selecting certain kinds of bird with our pace of change? Our destruction of habitats, whether through burning of rain forests or global warming, is affecting all kinds of birds but it’s hardest on bird species that are specialists or wed to particular habitats, like migratory birds that rely on particular food sources or staging and breeding grounds.
Our urbanized environments favor bird species that are flexible in their eating and foraging habits, and willing to do bold, innovative things, like blackbirds or grackles or sparrows. What we need to do is create reserves around the precious habitats in South America and elsewhere, which are rapidly disappearing because of logging, burning, and other threats. There are lots of ways of doing this, both political and financial, but just creating a habitat in your own yard can help. We have to act fast because the number of extinct species is continuing to rise.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.