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.
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.
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.
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.
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.