The Bird Way: a New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think by Jennifer Ackerman 🎧

There’s something about this pandemic that makes me want to connect with other readers by getting my hands on the books they’ve liked. I’ve shared several reviews of books that you all have shared with me, and I just finished another spotlighted on CBS Sunday Morning news, a nonfiction work recommended by Jeff Glor. He interviewed the author, Jennifer Ackerman, about her new work, The Bird Way (published May 5, 2020) in which she does exactly what the subtitle says: she shares research and anecdotes about birds across the world and the way they talk, work, play, parent, and think.

Firstly, this book changed the way I think about birds in nearly every way. For instance, most ornithologists study birds in North America and Europe; however, in these temperate regions, the birds behave oddly compared to the rest of the entire planet. Thus, what we know is misleading because we’re basing our perceptions of birds off the outliers. Only male birds sing for the purpose of mating? Wrong. Females and chicks are always dull in color? Wrong. Birds have tiny, stupid brains? Wrong (yes, their brains are tiny, but their neurons are so much closer than ours that the process greater amounts of information than you’d expect). Therefore, if you’re looking for information about birds in your area, and you’re in the United States, Canada, or Europe, this book isn’t what you’re looking for. It’s about common bird behavior globally.

Even the Australian turkey has it’s own look compared to its U.S. cousin. Credit: “File:Alectura lathami – Centenary Lakes (cropped).jpg.” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. 4 May 2020, 06:38 UTC. 11 Jun 2020, 16:31

Ackerman’s style of writing alternates between listing facts and longer anecdotes that focus on one particular bird species or type. The anecdotes are more interesting, and she provides plenty in the “work” section, such as the way raptor birds use fire as a tool. We used to believe that fire use separated humans from all other animals, but raptors have been recorded picking up smoldering sticks from bush fires in Australia and carrying them half a mile away to start a new fire in order to flush out prey. Some ornithologists say they doubt this is factual, but Aboriginal people have reported the tactic for generations.

Birds work in a variety of ways according to how they are built. The author also shares a study about hummingbirds. Whereas scientists used to think hummingbirds memorized by appearance or smell which flowers they’d already visited to drink the nectar, it turns out they recall the exact location. When a test flower was moved one meter from where it had been originally, the hummingbird that had visited the plant a few hours before couldn’t remember if it had already been to this flower. Why remember flower location? The hummingbird is so small and uses so much energy that it can’t waste that energy revisiting flowers that it has recently drained all the nectar from.

The super playful New Zeland Kea bird, a sort of parrot/raptor cross, has been known to cause problems because it’s so curious. Credit: “File:Bold kea close-up.jpg.” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. 30 May 2018, 10:10 UTC. 11 Jun 2020, 16:33

If you’re a fan of listening to birds — and I confess, I’m new to this group — the section on bird talk will be a winner. Male and female birds sing duets, and as heartwarming as that is, I was more drawn to studies on bird warning calls. An ornithologist was recording sounds as she walked through the woods. In one instance, she couldn’t move the camera she held for fear of losing sight of a bird. Something appeared on her shoulder in her peripheral vision, and she hoped it was a leaf. Instead, it was a large, yet harmless, spider. “Ack!” she can be heard saying on the recording when she looks down an hour later. But on another trip she almost stepped on a deadly snake, and the recorder caught her “oh Oh OH shiiiiiit.” When these cries were played for her family, they could not tell what was going to harm the ornithologist. Birds, however, make alarm calls so specific that they can share if the predator is on the ground, in the sky, close, farther away, if they should flee or swarm, etc. The intelligence conveyed through their “talk” is profound.

The Australian lyrebird is talkative and replicates sounds very closely. Credit: “File:Superb lyrbird in scrub.jpg.” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. 11 Apr 2020, 13:18 UTC. 11 Jun 2020, 16:28

My favorite section is one in which Ackerman demonstrates how closely birds and humans play, at times even providing evidence that suggests humans and some bird species have more in common than humans and orangutans. Australian ravens can be dangerous, territorial birds, but they also love to play. One will walk up to another and grab its foot. In return, the second bird grabs a foot of the first bird, so they both fall down. Birds make playful challenges for themselves, such as this balancing trick: carry a stick and go out as far as possible on a skinny branch without falling.

Australian ravens hide caches of meat, and if they are in captivity for study, those with plumber’s crack have been surprised when an innocent-looking bird jammed food in there. They’ve been known to play in snow, trying to catch snowballs thrown at them and sliding down snowy hills on their backs while holding a stick in their feet, just to go back up and do it again. Play builds a healthy prefrontal cortex. It’s not conclusive that play is practice for challenges in adulthood, especially since adult ravens play, but because it’s fun — though “fun” is not scientifically proven.

The Australian raven is a playful bird. Credit: “File:Corvus coronoides – Doughboy Head.jpg.” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. 16 Jan 2020, 05:26 UTC. 11 Jun 2020, 16:3

I found myself sharing facts with my spouse each day when I got home from work after listening to The Bird Way on my commute. Jennifer Ackerman reads her own book, meaning the names and bird sounds she captures on page are pronounced correctly. She’s a strong, clear reader, and the production quality was good. An enjoyable, well-researched, interesting book.

28 comments

  1. ARRRR! I now certainly must listen to this book. It sounds amazing. And I am going to have to track down the audiobook. I have read about owls and hawks and ravens. I have become a huge fan of naturalist memoirs. So glad ye reviewed this one.
    x The Captain

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    • Hey, glad I could steer you toward it! I really liked the way it was organized, so I kinda knew what to focus on. I’m listening to another Ackerman book, which is a cross between memoir and nature, and it’s harder to focus because it almost feels dreamy, like a wandering river.

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  2. The Covid pandemic is getting us to behave strangely, or differently anyway. I follow open-mouthed the disaster that is the early abandoning of isolation in the US. I hope you and everyone in your community is preserving social distancing and other measures that might mitigate your government’s failure to lead. And I’m glad your draw comfort from sharing the books we read (And thank you for all the Oz pictures today). I haven’t seen eagles carry burning sticks but I do often see them lift dead kangaroos as big as themselves off the road and onto the shoulder where they are in less danger of being hit by trucks (and of their dinner being run over again). They know about trucks and wait until we are close to lift off and ride the wind we push ahead.

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    • My place of employment has several practices in place that make me feel more confident than I would otherwise, and I’m comparing what’s going on with my library to what some other book bloggers who work at libraries are experiencing. It’s really hard to know that the library is a safe space, a community space, for so many people, but we aren’t allowing that. It’s very in and out and on your way, but at least people can still get books and use the computers. I’ve barely shelved any books lately, suggesting everyone is just now taking a bunch off with them. I, too, am discouraged by our government leadership, and I’m open-mouthed myself (with mask on) at some of the colleges and universities that are still hosting big events and bringing back students. In fact, the University of Notre Dame football team just had to get back together, and one tested positive for COVID this week. Four tested for antibodies. In September Biden and Trump will debate each other at the campus, with thousands of media people coming from around the globe. I may move to Australia and risk the magpies.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the bird pics. The majority of The Bird Way is about birds in your area of the globe, so I was surprised (and felt stupid) that I had thought birds in my neck of the woods were normal. They are not. Craft birds.

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    • It’s funny that in Hitchcock’s movie The Birds, he sticks to a couple of breeds: sparrows, seagulls, and ravens/black birds/crows (the characters aren’t sure). But they ALL sound the same for the duration of the film! The same hissy screech that has a buzz behind it….probably because it’s a scary sound!

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      • If we go to the local duck pond in the spring there are usually some geese with goslings and they are so mean! They’ll come flapping at you, hissing and screaming like small dinosaurs if they think you’re too close to their babies. I’ve actually never seen The Birds but if it’s all like the sounds Canada geese make, I believe that it’s scary!

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  3. Ooohhh fun! This is why book lovers are so smart, we learn so many random facts that will no doubt serve us in the future, at least in a board game night 🙂

    I’m not a big bird person myself, but when you have young children you’re forced to stop and smell the flowers more often (literally), and I find myself pointing out different birds on walks with my kids. We have A TON of Magpies here in Alberta, and when I first moved here i thought they were so beautiful, I told my husband I saw an escaped tropical bird and he informed me that magpies were more considered pests here becacue they are everywhere (which they are). They are still beautiful tho 🙂

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  4. This sounds very interesting. I have been enjoying the birdsong here while the roads were quieter, although now traffic is starting to get busy again all I can really hear is the noise of the pigeons that seem to live round here in their thousands.

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    • Since you like podcasts, I almost wonder if you would like the audiobook of this work. The author reads so clearly, and each section is it’s own thing, so it sort of reads like different episodes.

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  5. This sounds like an interesting read! To be honest I’ve never paid that much attention to birds, except to be annoyed when I’ve been reading too far into the night and they start chirping outside my window. Like they’re mocking my sabotaged sleep schedule with their fresh morning voices. Lol. Perhaps I’d like them more if I took the time to learn more about them. My mom likes Mourning Doves so I know their sound, but after that I’m lost!

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    • The weird thing for me about birds is I never realized they actually sing, like the birds in Disney movies. I can hear vicious, annoying squawking, but the singing was not in my hearing range before I got hearing aids. During quarantine, I was spending more time outside on my balcony, which faces a little forest area full of birds, and I became more intrigued.

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      • Oh, that’s so interesting! I remember reading about someone getting glasses for the first time and being shocked to see that the green blobs of trees were actually individual leaves- being able to distinguish bird song from the squawking with hearing aids sounds like a similar comparison, and a happy one. 🙂 Sitting on the balcony listening the the birds sounds so peaceful!

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  6. This sounds fascinating and right up my street. I have loved teaching my running friends about local birds, because I think I do stop to look at and listen to them, as a birdwatcher, so they have picked up details or started to ask me.

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    • You’re right in that strip of Northern hemisphere in which we have all these birds we think of as normal that are atypical! I never knew. That part really blew my mind. Ackerman has a few bird books, too!

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  7. This is definitely a book for me! I love nonfiction, and I love birds. I had no idea that North American and European birds were so different from birds in other parts of the world. I’m looking forward to learning more!

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    • I knew you would like this one, Amal! I can picture you taking walks through your neighborhood while listening to the audiobook. Because it’s a new book, it looks like libraries have lots of copies in various formats, too.

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  8. Funny, just the other day, while playing with Cat, I was wondering out loud about why animals play. I’m not sure it has any evolutionary significance—maybe social bonding?—but I came to the conclusion that only mammals are capable of play. I stand corrected—I’m so pleasantly surprised to hear that birds play too! My brain is reorganizing around this factoid because I always assumed they were dumb. In my (highly scientific) logic, birds can only have small brains since they need to be light enough to fly, lol. This makes me want to pick this book up.

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    • A lot of people thought only mammals played, so you’re not alone! The author discusses the importance of play, and while we see many mammals play-acting for things they will do as adults (such as those adorable videos of baby tigers pretending to stalk and pounce on their moms), birds don’t play in a way that serves any function to their survival.

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  9. I’m sure you’ve been doing this for a while now, but I only recently noticed the audiobook emoji you include in the header. Love it.

    This book sounds AWESOME. I’m glad you listened to the audiobook; I assume the recording Ackerman took are included? Well, maybe not all of them, but many? That would be a lot of fun to listen to.

    Since we moved the farm, I’ve been really interested in learning about the local flora, fauna, and animal life. I haven’t quite made it to birds yet… but we did have a mockingbird hanging out at our house for a while! This is the far edge of their breeding territory. It was awesome.

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    • I added the headphones emoji not too long ago, and I just like the look of it. Maybe it taps into that part of me that is good at finding the perfect meme.

      The book didn’t include any recordings of bird sounds, but because the author describes a sound on page, and she’s the narrator, I’m assuming she replicates the sound fairly well.

      Have you found any of those fuzzy brown and black caterpillars on the farm yet? Those are totally my friends of yore.

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      • Keep it up. Your ability to find the perfect meme is legendary in this house. I kid you not.

        Ah. I wish she had included the sounds in the audiobook format. I understand that it has to be different on the page, but I believe you should use your medium to the max. If a physical book can include images where the audiobook can’t, thats okay. But take advantage of including audio clips in the audiobook where the physical book cannot. It just makes sense!

        You’re thinking of Wolly Worms, the caterpillers that become Tiger Moths. No, we haven’t seen any yet. They are a sign that fall is coming, actually! It’ll be a few months yet before we see them. And then they will be EVERYWHERE.

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        • I agree that a medium should be used fully. This is part of why I enjoy audio books that are a little more performative and less someone simply reading to me as if I weren’t sighted. There ARE books that are read like that, especially for those who don’t have good vision and just want to hear the story as it is on page. I’m all for audio books, in general, being more like radio plays! SO good.

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          • I sometimes struggle with full-cast audiobooks. It always takes me a while to get into them… but once I do, I never want to stop listening. My favorite was actually His Dark Materials. I enjoyed the trilogy much more in full-cast as an audiobook than I did when I read it.

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