- The Bird Way: A new look at how birds talk, work, play, parent, and think, by Jennifer Ackerman. Scribe. $35.
The Bird Way is a fascinating and thorough exploration of the lives of what are surely the most beautiful creatures on Earth. Throughout the book, Jennifer Ackerman provides a wealth of facts and introduces us to many recent developments in the study of these animals.
Ackerman reveals how ornithology has, at least until recently, a bias towards the birds of the Northern Hemisphere, where most ornithologists live. This has resulted in false views of many birds, such as the idea that female birds don't often sing, something that is not true of many Southern Hemisphere species. Some of the facts in this book are mind-boggling; for instance, the zebra finch, an inhabitant of inland Australia, can provide information to its unborn chicks about current weather conditions. "When zebra finch parents are breeding in a hot climate, and the nest hits a temperature above 80 degrees Fahrenheit, they'll chirp the news to their unborn chicks...In response to these 'hot calls', the chicks will actually curtail their growth and emerge smaller - an adaptive advantage in the heat." Instances such as this leave the reader wondering about our definitions of intelligence, as does a section on tool use.
Ackerman examines how birds can mimic other species of bird for a variety of reasons - for example, to frighten away small competitors they may mimic the cries of larger predators. The mimicry of other birds extends to passing off young as the host's hatchlings in the well-known case of cuckoos. In some species, individual birds have developed individual egg patterns, as opposed to the same pattern in each bird of that species, making "the egg patterns difficult to forge", so no parasitic young are hatched. These evolutionary races between the nest-builders and the would-be parasitic layers are moving, in some cases, at "an extraordinary pace". For example, in Africa, "the parasitic cuckoo finch and its host, the tawny-flanked prinia, have changed in color and spot pattern over a period of just forty years..."
There are also those birds who raise young in groups, and in Australia this way of live is relatively common. The white-winged chough is familiar to many Australian bird-watchers. Its kidnapping (or fledgling-napping) habits are becoming better known due to the flocks of PhD students at the ANU in Canberra, where some of these birds live.
Again, the Northern Hemisphere bias of earlier scientists tended against communal living amongst birds being studied in depth. It's fascinating to learn that the magpies of Western Australia are far more communal than their Eastern State counterparts. Generally, communal living tends to result in more intelligent birds, and studies have shown that the larger the group of magpies, the brighter the birds tend to be.
Ackerman also considers bowerbirds, specifically the male that constructs elaborate displays to charm his mate. His ability to arrange things and to see them as if from the viewpoint of the female critic shows an ability to stand outside himself and to imagine a response There has also been quite a lot of reappraisal of the role of female birds in recent years, once again representing a righting of previously unperceived biases.
The possibility that "bower design and display may actually be culturally transmitted" arises in the fact that bower design and decoration varies within the same species within a particular area, even when there is ready access to the same decorations. Again, the reader my be drawn to question exactly how human beings are so very different from these remarkable birds. Ackerman provides an extensive guide to further reading for those who wish to explore any of the points she makes; I'll certainly be chasing up the references to the "culture" of bowerbirds as explored by scientist Joah Madden.
The complexity of the bird world, the many different approaches taken to similar problems, leads Ackerman to conclude that "...there is no one way to be a bird, just as there is no one way to be a human". Just as the diversity of these ways is being analysed as never before, there is a shocking reduction of bird numbers, and of species, occurring.
Climate change, causing events such as the catastrophic fires that recently swept Australia, may see many more species becoming extinct. After reading of the diversity of birds throughout the world, these sobering facts in the last chapter of the book strike home even more.
Those who break out binoculars on a regular basis will obviously be fascinated by this book, but so will anyone interested in questions of language, cognition, culture and intelligence. To know more about the diversity of the bird world is to add complexity to the word "beauty"; to give it wings. Ackerman's book does just that.
- Penelope Cottier writes poetry as PS Cottier.