The Bird Way

Book Review

Jennifer Ackerman 
Scribe . RRP $35

Jennifer Ackerman is a science, nature and human biology author.  She has written eight books, including the highly acclaimed The Genius of Birds (2016) which has been translated into over 20 languages.  

Ackerman is one of five sisters from a “white privileged” background. Her intense humanist background may partly explain Jennifer’s keen interest in birds and nature.  

Surprisingly, Jennifer lacks a formal scientific background.  She studied literature at Yale, graduating in 1980 with a BA in English, cum laude.  She was married to the late novelist, Karl Ackerman who shared her interest in birds and they raised two daughters.    

Ackerman is a professional writer mediating between the scientific community and a lay audience, which requires a simplification and popularization of often complex subjects which are therefore perennially at risk of distortion if she doesn’t get it right.  The Bird Way is divided into five sections, “Talk”, “Work”, “Play”, “Love” and “Parent” .

The Bird Way includes a section for “Further Reading”, listing scientific sources for each of the chapters as well as an index, allowing the reader to further investigate subjects of particular interest.  

A cover endorsement by Tim Low provides a hint that Australian birds and bird researchers are prominently featured; many of the birds will be very familiar to Australians, particularly those of us fortunate to reside outside our increasingly congested and malignant metropolises.  As well, birds from all around the world are discussed; Ackerman is well travelled.

Twitchers can behave like a cross between train spotters and name droppers, but Ackerman restricts her discussion to specific bird species related directly to her themes.  She maintains an intelligent, engaging discourse on detailed topics which can easily become soporific, a tribute to her writing skills, passionate interest, and broad depth of knowledge gleaned from her many personal friendships with experts and researchers worldwide.      

Most Australians know something about our very conspicuous birdlife and are aware of the wonders of long-distance migration.   Overall, most of us tend to regard birds as driven by a hard-wired instinct, but Ackerman shows us the “bird brain” is anything but simple minded.  “Only lately has science illuminated how birds can be smart with a brain at best the size of a walnut.  In 2016, a team of international scientists reported their discovery of one secret:  birds pack more brain cells into a smaller space.  When the team counted the number of neurons in the brains of twenty-eight different bird species ranging in size from the pint-size zebra finch to the six-foot-tall emu, they found that birds have higher neuron counts in their small brains than do mammals or even 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.  This tight arrangement of neurons makes for efficient high-speed sensory and nervous systems.”  

And “…big parrots like macaws and cockatoos, as well as corvids such as ravens and crows, have higher neuron counts in the forebrain than do monkeys with much larger brains—in some cases, twice as many neurons, with more connections between them—which explains why these birds are capable of cognitive feats comparable to those of great apes.” 

Ackerman discusses how a bird’s perception differs from ours not only in superior visual acuity and but birds perceive not only all the colours we do but also the ultra violet spectrum, “…it’s often difficult to get a bird’s eye view…For example, plumage and other body features used for sexual display may look dull to our eye, but add ultraviolet perception into the mix, and it’s a different story.”  Birds also exist on a different time scale:  “In the bird world, things happen fast, sometimes too fast for us to see” without the aid of high-speed video.  

Birds also have a keen sense of smell:  “Olfactory tissues takes up about 37 percent of a seabird’s brain, versus about 3 percent in the brain of a typical songbird.  Moreover, the olfactory bulbs of some seabirds have twice as many mitral cells as rats and six times as many as mice.”  Many seabirds often travel in the dark as well as in foggy conditions of poor visibility, depending on their sense of smell to locate food.  They are particularly sensitive to dimethyl sulfide (DMS), produced from krill consuming phytoplankton.  Tragically, plastic releases the same odour, explaining why sea birds eat our trash, often with fatal consequences.  Seabird populations have decreased by an alarming 70% during the last 50 years.  

“Male bowerbirds (from a family of birds that takes courting to extreme)…also manipulate how females experience their dazzling show”.  “Scientists spending long, laborious hours observing, filming, and recording the courtship of a range of bowerbird species have discovered just how shrewd and tactical these birds can be in shaping a female’s experience.”   A successful seduction requires a smooth operator.  A lot of thought and planning goes into these performances for both the male actor and the female critic.  A “theory of mind” (the ability to imagine the perception of another), the basis of both empathy and predation, is also an aspect of bird intelligence, as well as memorizing formidable numbers of specific locations, understanding the detailed progression of natural phenomena, using a variety of tools and working out complicated multi-step puzzles.  A surprising amount of bird display and courtship behaviour and song is individually crafted as well as often learnt from other expert and successful alpha males, involving a choreography frequently too rapid and complicated for us to perceive.   

Ackerman points out that the elaborate male courtship displays are a counterpoint to the careful evaluation of the females for her choice of mate.  She argues that it is this female choice which has driven the evolution of courtship, colour and feather patterns in the gaudier males.  At the same time, males very cleverly set the conditions under which they are perceived by the females; feminist notions in the interpretation of bird behaviour represent anthropocentric distortions.  

In some species, like bower birds, birds of paradise and grouse, the males display in special arenas called lerks.  Females of lerking species receive no help with either nesting or parenting from the males; all the male energy is put into intricate theatrical display and stage setting.  In most species, male and females share nesting and parenting, while in others, like our brush turkeys, the male does all the work.  

The author discusses the mystery of morning bird song, the herald of dawn, and why some birds begin to sing before others, postulating those with larger eyes sing first.  She describes our Green Catbird as “among the weirdest calls” she has heard.  “The first time I heard it, I thought, ‘What in the world is happening to that poor child?’”  She notes “it’s more often heard than seen in its rainforest home” which may explain why Ackerman describes it as a “handsome little bird”, although it is the size of a bower bird, its close relative.  However, unlike bower birds, Catbirds will kill other baby birds to feed their own.   Ackerman describes her muddy trek with her “guide and friend” Andrew Skeoch in Myrtle Gully, “deep in the Toolangi rainforest in southeastern Australia, a primeval place with towering myrtle beech and mountain ash trees” in search of Lyrebirds, the bird world’s greatest operatic stars.  

The author cites Tim Low who believes birdsong began in Australia and that “DNA analysis has revealed that songbirds, as well as parrots and pigeons, evolved on the continent (Australia) and radiated outward, spreading around the globe in successive waves.”   This is a controversial view, discrepant with the fossil record.   

Archaeopteryx, popularly celebrated as the first bird and missing link between the dinosaurs and birds, dates from the late Jurassic Epoch and is known from a dozen specimens collected in Europe and dated to 152.1 million years ago.  Another early bird-like fossil species, Xiaotinga zhengi, was discovered in China in 2015 and its age is around 5 million years earlier than Archaeopteryx.  The earliest direct ancestor of modern birds was also discovered in China in 2015, Archaeornithura meemannae, dating to 130.7 million years ago.  In 2017, 125 million year old “feathered dinosaur” Jianianghualong tengi was described from China.  And then there is the more recent “Wonder Chicken”, Asteriornis maastrichtensis, fossil, 66.7 million years old, the earliest “modern bird” was collected by a fossil collector in Belgium in 2000 and professionally analysed in 2018 and described this year.  In the late Jurassic, Gondwana had not yet broken apart and Australia, along with what is now India, Africa, Antarctica and South America, were part of one single land mass.  The earliest feathered fossils have been found in Laurasia rather than in Gondwana.  

Ackerman discusses the legendary, if unproven, use of fire by kites who “selectively pick up burning sticks and transport them to unburned locations” in order to flush out prey for an easy feed, with Mark Bonta, “a geographer and an expert in ethno-ornithology”.  Bonta speculates “It could very well have been the case that humans, birds, and fire coevolved in some sort of mutualistic relationship—perhaps humans actually derived the idea of using fire from watching birds.  Ackerman fancifully writes “I love this idea:  that a bird with a burning stick might upend old Promethean notions of human uniqueness and ecological mastery.”  

The section on parasitic birds who lay their eggs in the nests of others, “brood parasites”, is particularly fascinating.  The North American cowbird is so successful “they appear to be contributing to the demise of dozens of already troubled North American songbird species on the brink of extinction from habitat degradation…”  “Brood parasites may be nature’s greatest reproduction cheats, but they are hardly lazy or shiftless.  Females in particular show cunning and courage.  And their way of reproducing has led to a fierce and fascinating coevolutionary arms race that is pushing both parasites and hosts to extremes of clever adaptation and behaviour.”  

Australian birds, at least, are noted for their intelligence: “Birds that work together to tackle challenges may have a leg up on those that try to do so alone.  This may point to why many Australian birds are so extreme in their behavior and so intelligent.  They often live as residents in complex societies, establish lifelong bonds with their group mates, and have long breeding seasons, so their interactions are collectively more complex than among birds in the Northern Hemisphere, which are often migratory and live together in pairs and only for a relatively brief breeding season.   Australian Magpies that “had grown up in larger groups learned and remembered their lessons faster and were better able to control their peckish impulses…large group living in these birds sparks more innovative behaviours and facilitates their spread through social sharing of information.”   Ethology and behaviourism can suffer similar flaws to the social “pseudo” sciences in their findings.  There is a tendency to latch on to a conclusion which satisfies a preconception or social trend.  Why are some magpie groups large and others not?  Are some smaller Magpie groups younger, “splinter groups” striking out on their own with less experience than larger, longer established groups with an accumulation of wisdom and skills?  Do the smaller long-established groups occupy poorer habitat?  Are some Magpies more aggressive than others?  If so, are some groups more aggressive than others?  Are individual Magpies “naturally” more intelligent than others?  Magpies can live over 20 years, can recognising individual faces and have long memories and retain grudges.  They also remember human kindness and a friend is remembered even in the swooping season.  The author states that western populations of Magpies breed cooperatively while those in the east breed in pairs, but large family groups are not confined to the west.  Magpies were formerly divided into three species, but now are recognised as a single species with nine races intergrading with one another.   

Birds have a wide range of behaviours, invariably there are “exceptions to the rule”.  Some co-operative breeders have helpers who are not genetic kin with those whose reproduction they assist.  “Of the 213 species (Christina) Riehl (assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton) looked at, 94 had complex alliances of kin and nonkin—most of them in Australia, Madagascar, and the neotropics, in other words, not in the Northern Hemisphere…Another northern-bias-based assumption down the tubes.”  Riehl’s study of the Greater Ani, a member of the Cuckoo family has revealed some fascinating insights into cooperative breeding and childcare, suggesting these unusual birds have retained some of their parasitic behaviours but these have been altered into a very peculiar yet highly successful collective social structure.  It’s fascinating reading.  

Larger groups offer advantages:  they can displace smaller groups and outcompete them, and offer greater protection against predators and brood parasites.  (“In 2013, scientists found that the global distribution of brood parasites and cooperative breeders overlapped closely…evidence that cooperative breeding may evolve as a defence against brood parasites.”  Our white-winged choughs “actually kidnap the young from other groups to boost their numbers”.  One theory for this behaviour is “dubbed the ‘hard life’ theory”; that in Australia, “exposure to harsh or changeable environments promotes the evolution of helping at the nest.  Or maybe it’s the other way around:  Once they’re established as groups, they’re then able to invade habitats too harsh for independent breeders.”    Riehl concludes “…there may be many drivers” for cooperative breeding with birds who are not direct kin to those they help and who also help them.  Maybe, too, they have a broader view of themselves as members of a species, over-riding their kinship loyalties.  

Ackerman wishes- “Just for a day I’d like to experience the world the way they do, to see leaves with ultraviolet light baked into their greens, to hear and understand the minute musical differences and quick shifts in the acoustic structure of their complex calls and songs.  Just for a day, I’d like to smell what a seabird smells, wake up one morning on the sea with a storm petrel’s elevated olfactory sense and navigate the waters by swirling odour plumes and clouds…The way birds use their senses offers clues to another kind of knowing.”  

Ackerman comments:  “Birds have taught us that classifying behaviour into binary opposites—much as we like to do so – is often a futile exercise.  Birds live and act on a spectrum, just as we do, and they prove the power of exceptions, both in defining rules and in breaking them.”   Female veeries (Veery is a small North American species of thrush) are good long-range weather forecasters, altering their breeding cycles to avoid the worse hurricane seasons, “…at least as good as –maybe a bit better than—the predictions by weather forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.” Ackerman, perhaps to be “cool”, blunders with an anthropocentric feminism here: “Female veeries, that is.  They’re the ones that decide on the nesting and egg-laying schedule.”  

“We understand now that birds are not just biologically distinct but culturally distinct—and that this is true even with a species…Clearly there is no one way to be a bird, just as there is no one way to be a human…But birds are all connected through the common thread of “birdness” just as we are all connected through our humanity…To witness bird behaviour in its full range is to glean some perspective on our own behaviour. 

“Birds have shown us that we’re not unique in the ways we once thought…Nor are we alone in using aspects of language or tools, or in building complex structures, or in understanding, manipulating, and deceiving other animals.  We may, however, be alone in devising reasons why we’re special.”  Further, read  David Ehrenfeld’s classic The Arrogance of Humanism (Oxford University Press 1978).  The Bird Way does make you feel rather like a monkey.    

Bird populations are crashing worldwide.  “That same year (2019) scientists delivered the shocking news that one in four birds in the US and Canada have disappeared since 1970—nearly three billion birds.  The vanished species span the spectrum…They’re gone from all habitats, probably due primarily to habitat loss from development and agriculture, as well as pesticide use.  One recent study found that insecticides known as neonicotinoids prevent migratory birds from gaining the body mass and fat stores they need to start their journeys in a timely fashion…Also that year, bushfires swept Australia, killing more than a billion birds, mammals, and reptiles and destroying vast swaths of natural habitat.”  

   Most birds depend on insects for at least some of their diet. Over 40% of insect species are declining, with a third already endangered.   The global biomass of insects has been falling by an estimated 2.5% each year for the last 30 years.  In addition to clearing for agriculture, the environmental sterilization from our ever-invasive urban sprawl, and pesticide use, light pollution is a major contributor to insect decline, rapidly propelling an insect apocalypse.  Artificial lighting at night has a range of destructive impacts on insects as well as confusing and killing migrating birds.  Have a look at your house, neighbourhood, town or city at night.  Why are all those lights on?  Is it because we are afraid of each other?  Do you have a “Bug Zapper”?  ZAP away our insects, zap away our birds and then zap away ourselves.

The Sixth Extinction Event:  Homo horridus uber alles!

John Stockard
Wingham, NSW

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