Jennifer Ackerman’s “The Genius of Birds”: Book Review, Notes + Analysis

Poor Ash’s Almanack > Book Reviews > Science + Engineering + Math > Biology

Overall Rating: ★★★★★★ (6/7) (standout for its category)

Per-Hour Learning Potential / Utility: ★★★★★★ (6/7)

Readability: ★★★★★★★ (7/7)

Challenge Level: 1/5 (None) | ~265 pages ex-notes (352 official)

Blurb/Description: Who’s a bird-brain now?  Science writer Jennifer Ackerman delightfully – and scientifically – explores avian intelligence, and its implications for our own.

Summary: I came to this book via my acquaintance Jon Glatfelter’s book review site (also available as a monthly email).  Cognition – regardless of species – is an interesting topic to me, and my college roommate and I used to have a (sort-of serious, sort-of joking) habit of saying “I like birds” or “birds are cool” whenever there was a lull in the conversation.  Between that and my love of Peter Godfrey-Smith’s exploration of octopus cognition in Other Minds (OthM review + notes), I was like yeah, sign me up!

The Genius of Birds didn’t disappoint: it was an enjoyable, educational, lovely book with more mental models than I expected.  (I was sort of reading it just for personal interest; the learning was a bonus!)

Highlights: As Ackerman makes explicit, it’s tempting to anthropomorphize birds, to attempt to squash their experiences and cognition into the confining box of our own, to draw strong conclusions from weak or anecdotal data.  

She doesn’t do this, and as such, even though the book has a very accessible tone – you could hand this to a reasonably intelligent twelve-year-old with no problem – it remains highly scientific and thoughtful, while still being compact, engaging, and cute.  Ackerman is a talented writer.

Ackerman does a particularly good job of exploring topics like culture, convergence, trait adaptivity, and tradeoffs, while also implicitly providing a great example of scientific thinking in the way she approaches the topic.  I’ve ordered another one of Ackerman’s books (about the common cold) and am looking forward to reading it soon.

Oh, and: the cover and illustrations are uncommonly beautiful.  This book would make a phenomenal gift.

Lowlights: There’s not much to dislike here.  Parts of the book are perhaps overly lengthy and/or gratuitously cute… but I didn’t mind.  It also, at times, doesn’t go as deep into the underlying science as, say, Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds (OthM review + notes), and I actually would’ve liked a more thorough explanation of the biology in some parts.

Additionally, I feel like this is a second-line rather than a first-line learning book – by which I mean that you’ll likely more saliently notice the mental models in The Genius of Birds if you’ve already been introduced to some of the topics – for example, the general theme of the expensiveness ofcognition, the idea of trait adaptivity and tradeoffs, the mechanisms of culture, etc.

As such, I’d save this book for reinforcing those models, after reading other more human-focused books like Laurence Gonzales’s Deep Survival (DpSv review + notes).

Oh, and nitpick: Ackerman’s brief discussion of human intelligence didn’t strike me as a particularly complete perspective… but it’s not terribly important to the book, so it’s not a demerit.

Mental Model / ART Thinking Points: empathy, planning, convergence, tradeoffstrait adaptivity,margin of safetyfeedbackscientific thinkingmulticausalitymemorysocial connectionfairness, reciprocity, culture, in-group vs. out-group behavior, stresssleeputility

You should buy a copy of The Genius of Birds if: you want an easy weekend read that will provide a surprising amount of context on a number of mental models.

Reading Tips: none in particular, other than that highlighted at the end of lowlights.  Consider saving this one for after you’re familiar with some of the mental models cited.

Pairs Well With:

Other Minds” (OthM review + notes) by Peter Godfrey-Smith.  Like birds, octopi can be highly intelligent and curious – unlike birds, however, they tend to be relatively asocial, except in one fascinating context that Godfrey-Smith observes.  This is my favorite book on  trait adaptivity.

Deep Survival” (DpSv review + notes) by Laurence Gonzales.  One of my favorite books on human cognitionculture, and learning.

Nudge” (Ndge review + notes) by Cass Sunstein + Richard Thaler.

One of my favorite parts of Birds is the exploration of culture and social proof; S/T explores those topics among humans (and how we can use them to our advantage via  structural problem solving).

Why We Sleep ( SLEEP review + notes) by Dr. Matthew Walker – Ackerman touches on the role of sleep in birds, and it’s obviously critically important in humans too.

The Power of Habit ( PoH review + notes) by Charles Duhigg.  Ackerman references the cognitive costs of energy;  habit is one of the most notable energy-saving cognitive mechanisms.

Reread Value: 4/5 (High)

More Detailed Notes + Analysis (SPOILERS BELOW):

IMPORTANT: the below commentary DOES NOT SUBSTITUTE for READING THE BOOK.  Full stop. This commentary is NOT a comprehensive summary of the lessons of the book, or intended to be comprehensive.  It was primarily created for my own personal reference.

Much of the below will be utterly incomprehensible if you have not read the book, or if you do not have the book on hand to reference.  Even if it was comprehensive, you would be depriving yourself of the vast majority of the learning opportunity by only reading the “Cliff Notes.”  Do so at your own peril.

I provide these notes and analysis for five use cases.  First, they may help you decide which books you should put on your shelf, based on a quick review of some of the ideas discussed.  

Second, as I discuss in the memory mental model, time-delayed re-encoding strengthens memory, and notes can also serve as a “cue” to enhance recall.  However, taking notes is a time consuming process that many busy students and professionals opt out of, so hopefully these notes can serve as a starting point to which you can append your own thoughts, marginalia, insights, etc.

Third, perhaps most importantly of all, I contextualize authors’ points with points from other books that either serve to strengthen, or weaken, the arguments made.  I also point out how specific examples tie in to specific mental models, which you are encouraged to read, thereby enriching your understanding and accelerating your learning.  Combining two and three, I recommend that you read these notes while the book’s still fresh in your mind – after a few days, perhaps.

Fourth, they will hopefully serve as a “discovery mechanism” for further related reading.

Fifth and finally, they will hopefully serve as an index for you to return to at a future point in time, to identify sections of the book worth rereading to help you better address current challenges and opportunities in your life – or to reinterpret and reimagine elements of the book in a light you didn’t see previously because you weren’t familiar with all the other models or books discussed in the third use case.

Pages 2 – 3: Jennifer Ackerman believes birds get a bad rap – “bird brain,” etc – and tours through recent research exploring avian intelligence in its various forms, with examinations of what that might say about us.

Ackerman here notes that while there’s a general correlation between brain size (relative to body) and intelligence, density of neurons seems like a more important factor.

Page 9, Page 11: Ackerman notes that birds have various characteristics that either mirror human characteristics or are precursors thereto, including empathy and planning.

Like Godfrey-Smith in Other Minds (OthM review + notes), Ackerman seems to believe that bird intelligence is in some senses convergent – i.e., many of its aspects developed separately from human cognition, but, like eyes, ended up in a similar place.

Page 12: I thought this bit was interesting (although it’s not explored so deeply in the book):

“Many of the changes that separate us from other creatures have arisen not through the evolution of new genes or cells but through subtle shifts in how existing ones are used.  

This shared biology is what makes it possible to use other organisms as model systems to understand our own brains and behavior – to study learning in the giant sea snail Aplysia, anxiety in zebra fish, obsessive-compulsive disorder in border collies.”

I’ve seen somewhat similar points raised in other books – i.e., the vastness of our difference in gene expression vs. chimps despite sharing a lot of DNA – but I’ve never seen it used in the context of model organisms for study.  Something to look into.

Page 13: Ackerman notes here that “one of nature’s great mysteries” is “why we sleep.”  She viewssleep as another example of convergence, although I’m not sure this is the case.  In any event, see Matthew Walker’s phenomenal Why We Sleep ( SLEEP review + notes) for a better answer to this.

Page 18: New Caledonian crows demonstrate not only tool use, but metatool use – i.e., using one tool to access another tool, rather than food.  This is a behavior unique, apparently, to humans, great apes, and these crows (as far as we know).

Page 22: Ackerman notes that a number of bird species dunk food in water for various reasons: washing it, softening it, etc.  My dad has observed this behavior with birds and bread crusts in our backyard. It may have been a crow, or it may have been some other sort of bird.

Pages 24 – 25: Ackerman here cites Howard Gardner; I’m not sure it’s accurate to state:

“most psychologists and neuroscientists agree that there are different kinds of human intelligence – emotional, analytic, spatial, creative, practical.”

Ackerman goes on to note that:

“other scientists argue for such a thing as general intelligence in humans.”  

Um, this isn’t an “argument” – it’s one of the best-replicated phenomena in all of psychology research.  See Stuart Ritchie’s Intelligence (Intel review + notes).

The existence of “g” / IQ has been described as:

arguably the most replicated result in all psychology.” 

See also my discussion in the notes to Mukherjee’s “The Gene” (Gene review + notes).

Regardless, one of the interesting questions throughout the book to ponder is the interplay between general-purpose cognition (an analogy to “g” or the CPU in a computer) and specific-purpose cognition (something like an “ASIC.”)  I haven’t thought about it in these terms before, but it’s interesting…

Pages 26 – 27: Ackerman notes that one potential way to evaluate general-cognition strength is birds’ “opportunism” – how they respond to novel environments.  She notes that in the same environment, different types of birds display wildly different levels thereof.

Pages 28 – 29: Ackerman notes, not so much here but throughout the book, that there’s a tradeoff and trait adaptivity issue when it comes to avian intelligence.  We’ll explore the extended childhood bit later, but for now, one of the prerequisites for “intelligence” is simply bravery: being willing to try something new is risky.  Birds that have too large a margin of safety won’t access easy new food sources because they would rather stick with what they know.  Of course, overly aggressive birds can get themselves in trouble too.

Also, certain kinds of birds can learn from visual feedback: if they peck at a container covering food, and it moves, they’ll keep pecking.

Pages 29 – 30: On emergence: Ackerman notes that complex behaviors (like cluster flocking) don’t necessarily need to arise out of high-level cognition.  A few decisions and feedback can take care of that.

Pages 30 – 31: Ackerman explores the idea of “reversal learning,” which is apparently used to test flexibility of thinking in both humans and birds… it basically involves creating a preference for something associated with a reward, then changing so that a preference for another thing is required, then switching it back.  How quickly will we respond to new patterns?

Pages 31 – 32: One of Ackerman’s strengths is her scientific thinking: while, as with much psychology research, it can be tempting to draw wildly overreaching conclusions from experiments, Ackerman tends not to do that.  She notes:

“It’s tricky, however.  In these kinds of lab tests, all sorts of variables may affect a bird’s failure or success.  The boldness or fear of an individual bird may affect its problem-solving performance.

Birds that are faster at solving tasks may not be smarter; they may just be less hesitant to engage in a new task.  So a test designed to measure cognitive ability may really be measuring fearlessness.

“Unfortunately it is extremely difficult to get a ‘pure’ measure of cognitive performance that is not affected by myriad other factors,” says Neeltje Boogert [..] a bird cognition researcher at the University of St. Andrews.”

Multicausalityetc.  Applause to Ackerman for (here and elsewhere) generally being cautious in her interpretations.

Page 35: Here, Ackerman notes the general correlation between relative brain size and bird IQ (to the extent that there is such a thing.)

Pages 40 – 41: With a brain “roughly twice the size of a garden pea,” chickadees display some amazing behaviors, like remembering thousands of hiding places (down to the millimeter – way better than our memory!) and communicating about predators and food in a particularly sophisticated way.

Pages 43 – 44: Ackerman here notes the well-understood concept of the energy load of cognition:

“Brain tissue is heavy and metabolically expensive, the most expensive in the body, second only to the heart.  Neurons may be small, but they’re costly to make and maintain, consuming about ten times more energy relative to their size than other cells.”

In humans, this is one of the drivers of habit and other effort-saving cognitive biases.  The human brain accounts for roughly 2% of our weight but 20% of our caloric consumption.

Other interesting examples of trait adaptivity: birds possess “more than twice as many genes for bone remodeling and resorption than mammals do,” and their bones are dense “only where needed” to make it easier for them to fly.  Bird flights involve 10 – 30x resting energy consumption.  For context, vigorous exercise in humans appears to burn ~10x resting energy consumption (don’t quote me – that’s just my rough calculation based at looking at a few figures online, to try to understand the context)… and we certainly don’t spend much of our life sprinting places.

See Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit (PoH review + notes) for an exploration of habit – one of the most notable energy-saving cognitive mechanisms.

How extreme is the weight savings?  Birds also don’t have sex organs year-round, among other things.

Pages 47 – 48: “paedomorphosis” – the process of retaining a juvenile, big-headed appearance even as we age – is observed among all animals with large brains.

Pages 48 – 49: You may be aware there are various reproductive strategies – r and K, as this nice page explains – and one of the angles of this that Ackerman explores is “precocial” vs. “altricial” birds.  Precocial birds are born with their eyes open and can leave the nest “within a day or two.” Altricial birds are more like human babies and require some TLC and education before they’re ready to fly the nest (literally).   Tradeoffs.

Also, there’s a throwaway pun here that I laughed pretty hard at.  “I became a heron addict.”  This is a fun book to read, and not just because of all the cute bird anecdotes…

Pages 50 – 52: Ackerman here notes that birds, like humans, have both REM and slow-wave sleep; she notes that “REM sleep may be especially important for the early development of the brain.”  If you’re interested in that topic, or interested in sleep in general – hint: you SHOULD be – Matthew Walker’s “ Why We Sleep (Sleep review + notes) goes into that topic in quite some depth, with a section on REM and brain development.

However, birds don’t have REM for more than 10 seconds at a time.  They also often only sleep with one half of the brain at a time But – like humans – birds show more sleep waves in regions of the brain that have been used heavily.

Ackerman makes explicit the tradeoff of altricial vs. precocial birds.

Pages 53 – 54: Interesting bit on memory here: caching chickadees regenerate neurons routinely; some scientists hypothesize it may help prevent old memory interference.

Humans, too, regenerate neurons.

There’s also an interesting exploration here of brain size vs. neuron count and location: for example, elephants have huge brains, but a lot of their neurons are dedicated to moving their trunk around finely.  Back to the CPU vs. ASIC analogy…

Page 57: here and elsewhere, Ackerman discusses birds’ ability to recognize humans.  Sometimes specifically, across generations (as with crows), other times just humans in general.  Pigeons, apparently, know humans are humans in pictures whether they’re naked or clothed.

Page 58: Ackerman, like Godfrey-Smith in Other Minds (OthM review + notes) with his octopi, observes that cognition may work differently in birds than in humans and still get them to similar ends…

Specifically, both we and birds have working memory, but located in different parts of the brain.

Page 64: New Caledonian crows travel with and reuse their tools.  Apparently only they, humans, chimps, and orangutans make complex tools.

Page 67: Ackerman notes crows will use traffic – and traffic lights – to safely crack nuts to eat.  See this video (which she references).

Page 70: Sam Kean’s The Violinist’s Thumb (TVT review + notes) examines how under certain circumstances, given the energetic load of cognition, the environment can actually select against intelligence.

That doesn’t appear to be the case here: Ackerman notes that among woodpecker finches, tool use is more prevalent in areas with less available food.  Given feedback mechanisms, smarter birds would thus be selected for in those areas, as they’d be more able to access food…

Page 73: Here (and elsewhere), Ackerman discusses culture among birds.  There are some hilarious examples (such as escaped cockatoos teaching others to swear, such that cockatoos in the Australian Outback will now occasionally swear at you).  

But the more serious one is that crows seem to pass down toolmaking styles across generations, such that youngsters learn to build complex tools without ever learning to build the simple precursor tools first.

Page 74: Ackerman does note that there’s controversy about the above bit.  

New Caledonia, by the way, has the most intelligent crows: it’s a narrow, 220 mile long island that forms a triangle with New Zealand and Australia as the other two points.  

Pages 76 – 77: Well-phrased quote:

islands are castles of experiment surrounded by moats.  Competition is less fierce and predators less abundant than on continents, so evolutionary experimentation is not so quickly or ruthlessly punished.”  

Think of Darwin’s finches (as Ackerman references.)

It turns out that the only two birds that regularly use tools both live on islands.

Here, Ackerman explores opportunity costs and trait adaptivity.  To contextualize, think back to schema / selective perception, as explored by a number of authors.  One of my favorites is Laurence Gonzales’s discussion of the gorilla experiment in Deep Survival (DpSv review + notes):

“Gorillas are not helpful in completing the task [of counting the number of passes.  [… Gorillas are irrelevant and would displace the task in working memory. So the brain, efficient system that it is, filters out the gorilla so that you can keep counting.  Seeing the gorilla would be a mistake. You’d lose count.”

Right before that, Gonzales notes:

“the implicit assumption is that you know what you’re doing and know what sort of perceptual input you want […] such a closed attitude can prevent new perceptions from being incorporated into the model.”

His book does a great job of exploring this in a survival context: being overly focused on a goal (say, getting to a specific spot where you think there will be shelter) might blind you to opportunities along the way (say, passing a great spot for shelter).

Bringing this back to birds, Ackerman basically makes the point here that in environments with no natural predators:

 “crows are free from the burden of vigilance – in other words, they have the time and ease of mind to tinker with sticks and barbed leaves […] without looking up.”

Kind of a fascinating thing to think about (in my opinion).  I see lots of read-acrosses to everyday life.

For example, Ian Leslie’s “Curious” ( C review + notes) makes a similar point when it comes to babies.  Leslie notes that “curiosity is underwritten by love” – an example of a bottleneck – when you’re anxious or insecure, you don’t have the cognitive resources to be curious.

Pages 78 – 79: Fascinating exploration here of how baby crows learn from their parents.

Page 81: On trait adaptivity: what birds eat is often determined by the shape of their beaks.

New Caledonian crows don’t have particularly cool beaks, but they do fashion tools.

They also have more “overlap” between their vision than many birds, which enables them to make tools better.

It may also enable them to learn better.  See Godfrey-Smith in Other Minds (OthM review + notes) on pages 83 – 87 on efference copies and pigeons, which apparently can’t transfer learning from one eye to the other.  (Note: I am not a bird expert.)

Pages 85 – 86: I like collecting “science isn’t always sexy” quotes – see, for example, much of The Making of the Atomic Bomb (TMAB review + notes) and so on.  Here, Ackerman cites a bird researcher who notes how much of her time is spent on dicing food for birds…

Also, apparently New Caledonian crows have a “flow” state too – another researcher notes that you have to mak[e] their tasks just hard enough for them to stay interested and engaged.”  Somewhere, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is smiling.  

Do crows have “insight” or can they just respond to feedback?  It’s not clear.    

Page 87: Ackerman calls causal reasoning “one of our most powerful mental abilities.”  She, for example, notes that:

“An infant only seven to ten months old shows surprise if a beanbag is thrown from behind a screen and then the screen is lifted to real a toy block rather than an expected human causal agent such as a hand.”

Of course, this also leads to storytelling, a failure to understand/appreciate luck, etc.

Page 89: Interesting discussion here of “causal intervention” – the idea that if you see a tree branch shaken by the wind and drop fruit, you get the idea to shake the branch.  Apparently the smart crows are not so smart at this.

Pages 90 – 93: Few birds play, but the intelligent ones seem to.  Fun stories here. Ackerman mentions this video of a crow repeatedly sledding on a snow-covered roof, which is difficult to interpret as anything but “wheeeeeeeeeee!”

Page 95: Ackerman here discusses the chicken-and-egg nature of trait adaptivity: did tool use make crows smarter, or did smarter crows come up with tools?  Or was it a feedback process?

Page 101: Ackerman moves to the social connection angle.

Pages 104 – 105: Ackerman goes into the social intelligence hypothesis here.  She notes that crows express reciprocity bias, and will frequently give gifts to humans who have been nice to them.  Crows also exhibit fairness, and will “balk at doing work for less reward than a peer is getting.”  

Crows and cockatoos can also ace the marshmallow test better than some human children.  And, hey look, Samir’s First Law of Psychology Books is still intact (even though this isn’t a psychology book!)

Also in irrelevant but amusing things, cockatoos, like Richard Thaler, are highly intelligent and very funny but have terrible taste in nuts.  They prefer cashews to pecans. Tut tut.

Pages 106 – 107: Crows recognize humans even if they change clothes, wear sunglasses, or change their gait.  Crows also appear to “tag” dangerous people and remember them… later, Ackerman points out that they even seem to pass this knowledge down through generations.

Pages 108 – 109: Birds like variety in their diets too.  More importantly, birds display empathy and are able to anticipate what kind of food their special

Pages 112 – 113: Some types of birds can learn from other birds’ behavior… monkey see, monkey do.  This fits in nicely with the expensiveness of cognition:

This kind of social learning – copying fellow birds in a local environment – say the researchers, might be a quick and cheap way of acquiring successful new behaviors without undertaking potentially risky trial-and-error learning.”

See social proofculturehabit, etc… Ackerman provides some fascinating example of social proofleading to both reasonable (avoiding brood parasites) and unreasonable (mobbing non-threatening birds) types of behavior.

Pages 114 – 116: Here’s the other culture bit: admittedly anecdotal, but apparently crows pass knowledge of specific predators (i.e. one researcher) down through generation.

Ackerman here discusses tutelage in animals, as well as birds taking turns to act as watchmen.  This sort of collaborative activity reminds me a bit of Megan McArdle’s discussion in The Up Side of Down (UpD review + notes) of hunter-gatherer vs. agricultural morals.

Pages 118 – 119: Here’s the social intelligence hypothesis.  Ackerman also cites Robin Dunbar, most famous for the “DUnbar Number.”

Birds also seem to form small groups – see in-group vs. out-group behavior.

Pages 122 – 124: Ackerman here discusses oxytocin, which does all the usual things – i.e. if you block it in birds’ brains, they won’t pair-bond (aww) – but complex systems like bodies aren’t reducible to on-off switches and everything’s multicausal.  Oxytocin isn’t a miracle drug for empathy (sadly).

See also (not totally related): oxytocin and Williams syndrome (and this other one, also from NPR, on Williams syndrome).

Pages 125 – 126: On the trait-adaptivity of philandering / cheating.  See also Helen Fisher’s “Anatomy of Love” – which covers this in humans…

Pages 128 – 130: On thieving scrub jays’ fascinating process of misdirection…

Also, goslings imprint on anything that move and will try to mate with your Wellington boots.

Page 132: Birds on stress and empathy.  Again, Ackerman is careful with the interpretation here, but birds may console each other.

Page 139: Another example of convergence: human language is closer to birdsong than anything found in the great apes.  Apparently birds can have speech defects too. (This section about mockingbirds is great.)

Page 143: On the amazing underlying mechanics of how birds sing so precisely.

Pages 144 – 145: Fun fact: I don’t have the cocktail party effect, at least not very well, which is one reason I hate noisy environments.  (It’s genetic, I think; my dad has the same problem.)

Ackerman explores the cocktail party effect in birds… and some fun anecdotes about birds that got so good at imitating human whistle commands that herding dogs were waylaid.

Pages 146 – 147: The bit about parrots is great.  Lots of videos on youtube that are worth watching.  Parrots can imitate human speech because they have tongues that they use while calling.  I may or may not have spent a few too many minutes watching videos of parrots imitating their owners’ swearing…

Pages 152 – 154: Continuing the language parallel, Ackerman notes that birds are predisposed to learn song, but the specific kinds of song have huge variations, to the extent that songs in one part of the world (by the same species of bird) can be completely un-cross-recognizable to birds from elsewhere. Birds also often need tutors to learn.  Epigenetic effects are implicated in learning… and similar to humans, it’s easier for them to learn when they’re young.

Page 155: Matthew Walker would be happy: as with humans, sleep in birds is important for learning songs:

“The pattern of neuronal firing reflects the specific song learned, suggesting that it carries information about that song.”

Page 159: More on the convergence of language.

Pages 160 – 161: Again on the predation-intelligence hypothesis discussed earlier.  But, more interesting, Ackerman starts to get into sexual selection, which we’re getting to…

Pages 165 – 166: So, in Sam Kean’s The Violinist’s Thumb (TVT review + notes), he makes the following spectacular point:

“It just goes to show that people’s sexual desires can all too easily get misaligned from the utilitarian urge to pass on good genes.  Sexual attraction has its own potency and power […]”

I’ve previously/elsewhere framed this as a utility and local vs. global optimization problem: I’m convinced that a lot of people select for the wrong factors in significant others, which is one of the many contributors to the high divorce rate.

What gets you into a relationship with someone and what makes them interesting early on is often completely irrelevant down the line. Attractiveness would be the most obvious example; other examples I’ve heard (often from older friends) are “drama” – which can be exciting early but gets tiresome after a while.

Anyway, the broader point is that sexual selection doesn’t necessarily have to be logical, and there are plenty of examples in the animal kingdom of where it’s not.  The behavior of male bowerbirds, discussed later, is an example. Ackerman notes that in the case of selecting for song quality, there are reasonable reasons to believe that it might be a proxy for intelligence, early-life nutrition, and general fitness, but:

“It’s not clear whether a male’s song performance actually correlates with his performance on other cognitive tasks.  The evidence is mixed.”

Interesting to think about in the context of our own lives.

Page 174: more experienced birds build better nests

Pages 176 – 177, 180: Here’s the discussion of bowerbirds.  Interestingly, they appear to have contrast bias too… “the foreshortened stage may make the parading male himself and his colored objects look bigger and more vibrant.”

 Do male bowerbirds take advantage of this conceptually or accidentally?  Unclear. But they do it, intentionally.

Pages 188 – 189: Ackerman here cites Ronald Fisher’s “pioneering model of sexual selection” which posits that “extravagantly beautiful traits – even when not useful – may have evolved simply because they were preferred by the opposite sex.”  

Mindblowing, and applicable in everyday life in context of utility.  Helen Fisher basically compares the effects of love on the brain to the effects of cocaine.  Are we selecting the right people to marry?

Page 196: Super interesting discussion of bird navigation… why do some birds navigate well, even if you interfere, while others fail?  It’s unclear.

Pages 204 – 205: Interesting example of trait adaptivity and margin of safety here: some homing pigeon bird “fleets” are still maintained in poor, mountainous areas, as well as by China as backup in case electronics fail…

Pages 211 – 213: On memory: birds anticipate their future needs and cache the appropriate food; they also recover perishable food first.  Fascinating.

Page 219: Ackerman here cites The Knowledge, the test London cabbies take.  There are a lot of long-form pieces… this one’s my favorite.  I think she’s citing some of the same research on their hippocampi as Achor in “ The Happiness Advantage ( THA review + notes).

Her approach here is more interesting than other defenses I’ve seen of not using GPS.  That said, I would argue that this is an overly narrow framing: obviously the idea of traveling long distances by car is a very 20th century phenomenon, and our hippocampi worked just fine prior to that.  I’m sure there are other opportunities for us to learn to navigate – walking around our neighborhoods, going on hikes, etc…

Page 223: Maps are learned, not innate.

Pages 226 – 228: Ackerman notes that the exact mechanism of navigation in birds is unknown and may be multicausal, but birds do seem to know how to avoid storms.

There are also, quasi-hilariously, apparently Bermuda Triangles for birds where they “get hopelessly lost.”  I don’t know why I find this so funny but I do.  It’s the real-world equivalent of overloading an AI with a paradox… or sticking Dormammu in a time loop.

Page 235: Ackerman notes that humans “excel at cognitive integration,” the process of “pull[ing] together all those distributed resources – the totality of what an animal knows – to meet a challenge.”  

Pages 240 – 242: How did sparrows come to dominate urban environments?  They aren’t native to North America, but after being introduced in the early 1850s, they are now everywhere, including the Rockies and Death Valley… and the rainforests of Brazil.  

Apparently they’re also vicious murderers.  Even if they are cute when they’re nesting in grocery store big letter signs…

Pages 244 – 246: sparrows are a great example of trait adaptivity, and also about the bravery / novelty-seeking correlation with intelligence in a sense…

Sparrows can apparently learn to open automatic doors.  The ruddy turnstone, on the other hand, is pretty stupid.

Page 250: Ackerman here notes the trait adaptivity bit on being novelty-seeking:  “[being] open to the new and flexible [… is] risky.  Flexibility carries costs […] Exploring the new and unknown takes time and energy, and it can get you into trouble.”

Tradeoffs, too.

Page 264: More tradeoffs!  Back to the intelligence vs. lifespan bit.  Note that octopi / octopuses are a curious exception to the general rule… see Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds (OthM review + notes).


First Read: summer 2018

Last Read: summer 2018

Number of Times Read: 1

Planning to Read Again?: maybe


Review Date: summer 2018

Notes Date: summer 2018