books book reviews

Nature books

reviewed by T. Nelson

book review Score-1

Avian Cognition: Exploring the Intelligence, Behavior, and Individuality of Birds
Debra Herrmann
CRC Press, 2016

A few months ago there was a big fire in the neighborhood where I live. Dense smoke was everywhere, creating an eerie late afternoon fog. And a strange thing happened: a bird flew up toward me and started tweeting a distress call at me. If you live around birds long enough, you learn that bird calls can be highly directional. It seemed that this bird knew that smoke meant danger, was worried about it, and recognized that we humans have agency—that we knew, for instance, how to create fire and how to control it. The bird then flew, Lassie-like, around to the front of the house as if to show me where the fire was.

That struck me as being fairly intelligent. How do birds know about fire? Recognizing that humans have agency suggests that birds might even be capable of what psychologists call theory of mind, which is a fairly sophisticated neurological process.

Okay, so maybe I anthropo­morphized it. But my observations of crows, ravens and red-tailed hawks have convinced me that bird intelligence is highly underrated. So I was excited when I saw this book and I pre-ordered it. Big mistake.

Not all birds are as smart as that smoke-detecting bird. Ducks, for example, are barely smarter than turkeys, which according to myth are so stupid they look up when it rains and drown. Cardinals are driven by their hormones and bash themselves endlessly against their reflections in a window. On the other hand, New Caldedonian crows are out there making not just tools, but metatools—tools that are needed to make other tools. I wouldn't be surprised if these birds someday learned how to make fire.

But there are many other books on crows, and the birds here are arguably more picturesque. Besides ducks and cardinals Herrmann also has chapters on herons, Canada geese, hummingbirds, zebra finches, budgerigars, parakeets, mitred conures, and parrots (which are indeed smart). She is more concerned about their ecology and the destruction of their habitat than probing their minds, so instead of hard science we get mainly descriptions: bird behavior is described anecdotally, sometimes for birds in captivity, with no comparative neuroanatomy and no description of any behavioral testing. The chapter on avian communication patterns, for example, is mostly a collection of low-resolution sonograms, with little contextual meaning, but they are in color and well annotated.

In many places the writing is highly personal, like here where she talks about her pet budgerigar as it was dying:

I held Uzziel in my hand, patted her, and talked to her softly. Although Uzziel had never liked being held she did not resist. She briefly grasped my finger gently with her beak, like a final handshake. ... Then I noticed something glistening. ... I looked closer and realized a tear was welling up in Uzziel's eye. Uzziel was crying, without making a sound. [p. 257]

I am tempted to say something insensitive here, but I will bite my tongue.

Here's another typical passage, on her pet zebra finches:

Puff, Buzz, Cinnamon, and Ginger were at the age where they had more energy than they knew what to do with. They played and flew around nonstop all day long. Ami and Tzvi played like that when they were that age. But at this point in time they just couldn't keep up. Puff, Buzz, Cinnamon and Ginger did not understand that. [p. 325]

In these chapters the writing is more like an animal lover's diary than anything to do with field biology. In the chapters on non-captive birds like ducks and geese, the writing is a little more professional, and the author provides useful information on the growth, behavior, and migration of the animals. But even here, it often reads like this:

That spring the Canada goose did not have a home to return to. Its pond had been destroyed to make a parking lot, leaving the goose with a small drainage ditch. When the goose's drainage ditch was filled in, it moved to a small puddle. Now the puddle was gone. ... The goose, a 36 inch (0.91 m) tall bird, was found run over near the new road where its puddle had been. [p. 88]

That's a darn shame, but at the risk of sounding insensitive I have to wonder what any of this has to do with avian cognition.

Throughout that section, at least until I got to the part where the goose dies (whoops, spoiler alert!), I couldn't help thinking about that Verizon commercial about the ‘magnificent geese’:

Watch as these magnificent creatures take flight, soaring away from home towards the promise of a better existence. But these birds are suffering. Because this better place turned out to have an unreliable cell phone network, and the videos on their little bird phones kept buffering. Birds hate that.

This book has two CDs with recordings of bird calls, lots of color photos of birds, and tables with addresses and phone numbers where you can get involved in saving their habitats. That will surely interest some readers. Others will be interested in the pet bird stories, but bored by the nature studies. And I know for a fact that at least some of those who bought this very expensive book thinking it would be a scientific discussion of bird intelligence, behavior, and language will be peeved to find that it is mainly about the tribulations of somebody's pet birds.

There's lots of material in this book—enough that any reader can find something interesting. But if you're looking for science you might come away disappointed. There's something for everybody to dislike about this book.

jan 02, 2016