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The Bird Way

A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think

By Jennifer Ackerman
13-minute read
Audio available
The Bird Way by Jennifer Ackerman

The Bird Way (2020) is a study of birds that harnesses both the expertise of the scientist and the joy of the birdwatcher. A celebration of the mind-boggling diversity of birds and their behavior, it explores the globe in pursuit of the inner workings of the avian mind. From Costa Rica’s teeming rainforests to the magpie-menaced suburbs of Australian cities, it explores how birds as different as ant followers, parrots, raptors, and ravens play, parent, and hunt.

  • Birdwatchers 
  • Scientists 
  • Nature lovers

Jennifer Ackerman is an American science writer and the author of several critically acclaimed best sellers. Her most recent books include Ah-Choo, a study of the common cold, and Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream, an exploration of a day in the life of the human body. Ackerman is a regular contributor to Scientific American, National Geographic, and the New York Times. Her work has been awarded multiple grants and endowments, including a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship in Nonfiction.

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The Bird Way

A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think

By Jennifer Ackerman
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
Upgrade to Premium Read or listen now
The Bird Way by Jennifer Ackerman
Synopsis

The Bird Way (2020) is a study of birds that harnesses both the expertise of the scientist and the joy of the birdwatcher. A celebration of the mind-boggling diversity of birds and their behavior, it explores the globe in pursuit of the inner workings of the avian mind. From Costa Rica’s teeming rainforests to the magpie-menaced suburbs of Australian cities, it explores how birds as different as ant followers, parrots, raptors, and ravens play, parent, and hunt.

Key idea 1 of 8

Birds use tools to get at precious food resources.

Let’s start our journey into the world of birds by looking at food from their perspective. 

Whether you live in a forest, a desert, or a city, the things you can eat are small and unevenly spread across a vast territory. What’s worse, most of these things don’t want to be eaten. Fish hide below the water’s surface, while nuts, seeds, and fruits come packaged in tough, resistant shells. 

Alright, now look at this problem through human eyes. How would you pull those fish out of the water or open those hard-to-crack nuts? You’d use a tool, of course. And that’s just what birds do too.

The key message in this blink is: Birds use tools to get at precious food resources. 

Don’t let the word “bird-brained” fool you. Birds can be surprisingly clever, especially when it comes to using tools. Herons, for example, use leaves and dead insects to lure aquatic prey to the surface. Other birds, like gulls and ravens, use gravity in an ingenious way: they open clams and nuts by simply pelting them against rocks. 

But that’s just scratching the surface. Birds use a remarkable variety of tools. Take the small Australian songbird called the Sittella. Sittellas find their food by probing holes in gum trees with twigs specially selected for their grub-extracting qualities. 

Some birds, like the woodpecker finch in the Galápagos Islands, go a step further by making their own tools. This resourceful creature seeks out cacti spikes of varying lengths, which it modifies with its beak. It then carries the improvised spear from one tree to the next, looking for insects to impale.

But the most famous avian toolmakers are perhaps the crows of New Caledonia. Using durable, barb-lined pandanus leaves, these crafty birds make sticks with hooked ends, which allows them to pull grubs out of small holes and cracks. 

Making these tools is a complicated business, requiring multiple precision cuts and tears. The fact that these crows are capable of creating them in the first place means they must have an image of what they are building in their minds before they begin constructing it.

In captivity, one crow combined four separate sticks to build a multipart, or “compound,” tool! This phenomenal ability is unparalleled in the non-mammalian animal world, and even rivals the capabilities of humans under the age of five.

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