Bird brain? Why, thank you!

So you thought bird brains were small and simple: think again


Jennifer Ackerman takes a fresh look at how birds talk, work, play, parent and think.


Next time someone calls you a bird brain, perhaps you should thank them.

Because scientists studying bird behaviours are challenging the traditional view of how birds conduct their lives, communicate, forage, court, breed and survive.

They are also uncovering the remarkable intelligence underlying their activities; abilities we once considered uniquely our own - deception, manipulation, cheating and kidnapping; and ingenious communication between species, co-operation, collaboration, altruism, culture and play.

In her new book, The Bird Way, Jennifer Ackerman draws 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 - to show there is no single bird way of being.

Despite having a brain at best the size of a walnut, birds have higher neuron counts in their brains than mammals or primates of similar brain size.

"Neurons in bird brains are much smaller, more numerous, and more densely packed than those in mammalian and primate brains," Ackerman writes.

"This tight arrangement of neurons makes for efficient high-speed sensory and nervous systems. In other words ... bird brains have the potential to provide much higher cognitive clout per pound than do mammalian brains."

So there!

The book goes on to give a fascinating insight into how birds talk (from the dawn chorus to alarms and superb parroting), how they work and play, love and parent.

If you've ever been swooped by a magpie, take note: the swoopers are generally male and, lucky for us mere mortals, only about 10 per cent are the villains. Those that do swoop appear to specialise: about half only target pedestrians. Then there are the cyclist magpies and the postie-chasers.

And a word of warning: magpies can live about 20 years and can remember up to 30 human faces. So do the wrong thing and you will certainly regret it.

Did you know birds can pick up foraging strategies within their community and pass them around through social networks until they become established behaviours?

Ackerman cites the case of great tits in the British Isles that learned to peel the foil cap from milk bottles left on doorsteps and enjoy a meal from the cream at the top.

The behaviour began in just one town but quickly spread across Great Britain.

There's so much more to birds than feathers and song - and much still to be learned.

The Bird Way, by Jennifer Ackerman (Scribe) RRP $35.

Ackerman is also author of The Genius of Birds and Birds by the Shore.