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The Genius of Birds

Behold the brilliance of birds!

By Jennifer Ackerman
15-minute read
Audio available
The Genius of Birds: Behold the brilliance of birds! by Jennifer Ackerman

The Genius of Birds (2016) is all about the incredible intellect of these winged creatures. These blinks explain the many ways birds display their intelligence, from tool making and navigation to memory and song.

This is a Blinkist staff pick

From pigeons being able to pick out a Monet from a group of paintings to sparrows lining their nests with cigarettes, these blinks enlightened me about the winged beasts we share our world with.”

– Clare, Editorial Quality Lead at Blinkist

  • People who want to know why birds chirp outside their window every morning
  • Anyone curious about neurological research in animals

Jennifer Ackerman has been writing about science for over 20 years. Her previous books include Sex Sleep Eat Drink: A Day in the Life of Your Body and Ah-Choo: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold. She is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, including the National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship in Nonfiction.

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The Genius of Birds

Behold the brilliance of birds!

By Jennifer Ackerman
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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The Genius of Birds: Behold the brilliance of birds! by Jennifer Ackerman
Synopsis

The Genius of Birds (2016) is all about the incredible intellect of these winged creatures. These blinks explain the many ways birds display their intelligence, from tool making and navigation to memory and song.

This is a Blinkist staff pick

From pigeons being able to pick out a Monet from a group of paintings to sparrows lining their nests with cigarettes, these blinks enlightened me about the winged beasts we share our world with.”

– Clare, Editorial Quality Lead at Blinkist

Key idea 1 of 9

Intelligence is an elusive concept and testing birds’ cognition is a challenging task.

Every now and then, we might hear someone use the term “birdbrained” to criticize an especially silly idea or suggestion; our feathered friends aren’t usually known for their intelligence.

However, recent research may suggest that birds deserve a better reputation than the one they’ve gotten. In fact, there are loads of ways in which birds appear to demonstrate intelligence. But before going into greater detail, let’s first look at why the term intelligence is itself hard to define.

The concept of intelligence is slippery even when applied to humans. After all, people can be intelligent in a variety of ways. For instance, someone might be a literary genius but may only be capable of doing math at a second-grade level; similarly, some birds display formidable logic, while others are excellently suited to adaptation and exploration.

So, it’s hard to define what exactly intelligence is and, as a result, scientists tend to prefer the word cognition – at least when talking about birds.

But testing the cognitive capacities of birds is also a scientific challenge. In some cases, what appears to be an impressive cognitive feat is simply a learned reflex, a much less impressive form of intelligence.

For example, seeing a flock of starlings soaring through the sky in unison might lead you to believe that some mysterious method of communication enables their synchronized flight. But the truth is that each bird simply obeys a few simple rules in relation to those around it.

In other words, while the overall display is impressive, every bird is merely following simple orders, not exercising their cognitive prowess.

As such, scientists have worked to design tests that specifically measure the cognitive ability of birds. These tests often involve the bird solving a problem in exchange for some seed or other food.

For instance, one experiment places birdseed in a container with a retractable lid. Scientists then measure the time it takes a bird to retrieve the seed to determine its cognitive ability. The same experiment could be used on a wide variety of birds to offer a comparative analysis of their cognitive abilities.

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