Book Review: The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman

the genius of birds

Jennifer Ackerman has been writing on science for the past 25 years. The Genius of Birds is her fifth book. I had never read any of her earlier works but this one got me interested when it featured in the Goodreads Shortlist For 2016. I have always enjoyed writers that simplify science – Steven Johnson & Elizabeth Kolbert being my recent favourites. The Genius of Birds falls bang in that sweet spot of science and easy comprehension. The hypothesis for the book begins with what most English readers and speakers understand of “being bird brained”. Ackerman then systematically breaks down this belief of birds being, well, bird-brained using well-researched studies and, to a certain extent, anecdotes that prove quite the contrary. Birds are actually very intelligent – just that you cannot benchmark them against human intelligence. Across eight eminently readable chapters, Ackerman shows how birds are intelligent social animals, how they have an extremely sophisticated sense of direction, how they a strong sense of aesthetics in what they build and how some of them are intelligent enough to mimic the human tongue. What I liked the most about this book (and its author) is the lucid, almost self-deprecating writing style and the integration of scientific studies and interesting stories around bird behaviour. In a time when most conversations tend to circle around a certain Donald Trump and on demonetisation, contents of this book can act as interesting conversation starters. Heard of that New Caledonian crow nicknamed ‘007’ who solves a complex eight stage puzzle by dropping stones in a maze, to get to its food? And you thought crows dropping stones to get to water was just a fable? Watch this amazing 3 min BBC video here

What I liked the most about this book (and its author) is the lucid, almost self-deprecating writing style and the integration of scientific studies and interesting stories around bird behaviour. In a time when most conversations tend to circle around a certain Donald Trump and on demonetisation, contents of this book can act as interesting conversation starters. Heard of that New Caledonian crow nicknamed ‘007’ who solves a complex eight stage puzzle by dropping stones in a maze, to get to its food? And you thought crows dropping stones to get to water was just a fable? Watch this amazing 3 min BBC video here. The Genius of Birds is full interesting stories like these on the intelligence of birds.

What I found very interesting is the author’s account of how her father got her interested in birds in her childhood by taking her bird watching when she was about seven years old. As a parent, there’s so much on us to help our children know more, and possibly lead them to something that becomes their life-long passion, just like Ackerman’s father did. The author also brings in an interesting analogy. She introduces Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence in Humans and tries to set a parallel for a similar concept among birds. A little more detailing on this train of thought would have helped.

The serious bird watcher and science enthusiast may get put off by the level of ‘simplification’ done by the author, but I am not complaining. To me, this is precisely the reason why I enjoyed reading this book. I would love my 11 years old daughter to go through this book, but then that’s possibly asking for too much. Wouldn’t Penguin (the publisher, not the bird) be interested in working with Ackerman to create a kids-friendly version of this eminently readable book? I surely believe such a step will help shore up the sales for The Genius of Birds. Till that time, I recommend you buy this book and enjoy a lovely pop science read.

You may actually try reading out the interesting bits to your children, especially if they are in the 10-13 age group.

Author: Jennifer Ackerman
Publisher: Penguin Press
Release: April 2016
Genre: Non Fiction / Wildlife
Buy from Amazon

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Gaurav
Gaurav recently quit his 15 years long corporate career to ‘pivot his hobby’ of reading. He is the founder and chief editor of bookbhook.com- a tl;dr (too long; didn't read) service for non-fiction books. Bookbhook thoughtfully curates books and then lovingly handcrafts these books into short summaries, which you can read on the bookbhook app. Gaurav will write fortnightly for Writersmelon and bring to you interesting booklists and reviews of non-fiction books. You can download the bookbhook from both Play and Apple stores and follow bookbhook on twitter(@bookbhook) and Instagram (bookbhook).
http://www.bookbhook.com

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