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book review: the genius of birds

In her engrossing book, The Genius of Birds, Jennifer Ackerman, elucidates recent findings that are shifting our understanding of bird intelligence. Indeed, birds have borne the brunt of our disrespect, from the ‘bird-brained’ stupid, foolish person, to the ‘lame duck’ ineffectual politician. The concept of ‘bird-brain’ arose from the belief that avian species possessed only diminutive brains since they functioned mainly by instinct. But, not only have scientists found that some birds have brains relatively large for their size, size matters less than where neurons are located, how they communicate at their synapses and how interaction with the environment drives neural activity.

Avoiding the word ‘intelligence’ because of its anthropomorphizing human connotations, animal scientists now prefer the term ‘cognition,’ defined as any mechanism by which the animal acquires, processes, stores and uses information. It usually refers to mechanisms involved in learning, memory, perception and decision making. Higher forms of cognition constitute insight, reasoning and planning; however, forms are attention and motivation.

Cognitively defining intelligence, however, opens up another problem – how to measure it. There is no standard IQ test for birds, so scientists devise puzzles for birds, in order to reveal their problem-solving abilities. Such meticulously designed laboratory experiments have been very useful in disclosing bird skills, such as that of ‘007,’ a New Caledonian crow, that was able to shape one tool and use it to obtain another too, which was ultimately employed to extract a food reward (‘mega-tool use’).

But Ackerman cautions that judging bird intelligence by speed and success at solving lab problems, may overlook many variables, such as the boldness or fear of an individual. Birds that are faster at solving tasks may not be smarter, just less hesitant to engage in a new task.


Thus, to avoid the artificial framework of the lab experiment, another approach would be observation, of birds doing routine as well as unusual or new behavior in their own habitat. Though lacking the rigors of an experiment’s strict parameters, anecdotes, from both professionals and amateurs, have resulted in an enormous amount of useful enlightening data. These have been validated as repeated observations have confirmed them. For example: Green-backed herons have been found to use insects as bait, placing them lightly on the surface of water to lure fish.


So in amassing all the research to date, wherein does our understanding of bird intelligence lie? What birds are the smartest and why? Scientists have concluded that it is the ‘primary innovators,’ mainly crows and parrots; then grackles, raptors, woodpeckers, hornbills, gulls, kingfishers, roadrunners and herons. Innovation is accepted as a measure of cognition. Another example is owls scattering clumps of animal feces near the opening of their nest chambers and watching for unsuspecting dung beetles to scuttle toward their trap. Or consider the woodpecker finches of the Galapagos when they use their skills to chip away at bark, producing wood splinters to probe crevices beyond the reach of their beaks.

Delving deeper, Ackerman questions whether they are evolutionary forces driving bird innovation. Two theories postulate the source of such forces. First, there are the ecological problems birds encounter, especially foraging (how to find enough food, how to fetch hard to get foods, remembering where seeds are hidden). Secondly, there are social pressures – getting along with others, thieves, finding a mate and carrying for young. From this has arisen the ‘social intelligence hypothesis,’ the idea that that a demanding social life might drive the evolution of brain power.

Having covered the larger, overarching theories, Ackerman then investigates lesser, more discrete topics and issues.

Brains of many birds are actually considerably larger than expected for their body size. Reproductive strategy may play a role. Species that are precocial (born with eyes open and able to leave the nest in a day or two) have larger brains at birth than altricial birds (born naked, blind and helpless and remain in the nest until they are as big as their parents). On the other hand, birds that migrate have smaller brains than their sedentary relatives. Since brains consume a lot of energy, this would seem reasonable.

Calls, songs, mimicry and the virtuosity they entail, are address in a lengthy chapter. These vocal feats are brought about by the ‘syrinx,’ somewhat analogous to our vocal cords, but more complex in its anatomy and innervation, enabling the simultaneous production of two harmonically unrelated notes at the same time. Nonetheless, such structurally well-equipped birds must still learn by trial and error, working through wrong, off-key notes, to produce their vocalizations.

Nest building requires many intellectual abilities besides instinct: learning, memory, experience, decision making, coordination and collaborations.

And of course, there is the everlasting mystery of migration. Some new theories have arisen. ‘Infrasounds’ are produced by many natural sources, but mainly oceans. Interacting waves in the deep ocean and movements of sea surface water create a background noise in the atmosphere that can be detected with low frequency microphones. Birds may be capable of detecting such low frequencies and use them as a guide through the ‘soundscapes.’ Or the ‘olfactory navigation hypothesis’: pigeons with several olfactory nerves never returned home! Homing pigeons have very large olfactory bulbs compared with non-homing domestic pigeons.

Much more awaits the reader of this engaging, in-depth book. Ackerman has done extensive research, attested by 50 pages of explanatory notes at the end. Yet, at 271 pages, she has consolidated the heavy science to a layperson’s comprehension. My one criticism would be the need for explanatory diagrams. Lovely pen and ink drawings introduce each chapter, but, for example, her description of the complex steps of the New Caledonian crow in constructing a hook tool from the leaves of the pandanus tree left me befuddled.

The book is available at the Rutland Free Library.


west rutland marsh - september monitoring report

It was a glorious first day of autumn at West Rutland Marsh! Forty-five species beat last year by three and our September average of 39. We originally thought the day’s tally was 44, but a photo later revealed we actually had one additional species, a northern parula. Thirteen lucky participants all contributed to the total.

The day started with two tussling marsh wrens near the boardwalk, perhaps an immature still begging food of an adult?

One of the highlights of the day was Philadelphia vireo, with a nearby red-eyed vireo for contrast. They were both feeding frantically, but we had good looks at each. It was a life bird for some participants. Two warbling vireos were singing weakly.

Swamp SparrowRed-winged blackbird and blue jay numbers were high with 243 and 69, respectively.

Warblers included the parula, a black-throated green warbler, a magnolia warbler, a chestnut-sided warbler and several common yellowthroats.

Gray catbirds are still around in good numbers – 14 (last year we counted 13). Swamp sparrows are stilling singing away as well as a few marsh wrens. White-throated sparrows are putting in an appearance as the season changes.

Raptor numbers were low, one in fact, a sharp-shinned hawk.

Species #151 for our monitoring walk appeared today: an immature northern mockingbird, keeping company with starlings. At first we thought it was a juvenile starling, but its long tail and white wing patches gave it away.

The next monitoring walk is scheduled for Saturday, October 15, at 8 a.m.

Today’s list:

Canada Goose  9
Wood Duck  12
Mallard  7
Great Blue Heron  2
Sharp-shinned Hawk  1
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)  2
Mourning Dove  6
Belted Kingfisher  2
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker  1
Downy Woodpecker  8
Hairy Woodpecker  1
Northern Flicker  1
Pileated Woodpecker  2
Eastern Phoebe  9
Philadelphia Vireo  1    
Warbling Vireo  2    
Red-eyed Vireo  3
Blue Jay  69
American Crow  4
Common Raven  3
Black-capped Chickadee  15
Red-breasted Nuthatch  2
White-breasted Nuthatch  1
House Wren  1
Marsh Wren  3
American Robin  1
Gray Catbird  14
Northern Mockingbird  1    
European Starling  5
Cedar Waxwing  2
Common Yellowthroat  4
Magnolia Warbler  1
Chestnut-sided Warbler  1
Black-throated Green Warbler  1
White-throated Sparrow  3
Song Sparrow  5
Swamp Sparrow  15
Northern Cardinal  2
Rose-breasted Grosbeak  1
Red-winged Blackbird  243
House Finch  1
Purple Finch  1
American Goldfinch  9
House Sparrow  1


un-hawk watch - september 17

Of all the bird outings, hawk watches are probably the hardest to plan. Not because of difficult birders, but because migrating hawks are so subject to weather conditions.

So it was on September 17 as we sent off for our annual trip to Mt. Philo State Park. As soon as we settled ourselves on the rocky promontory, we realized the gusting south wind was not in our favor. After sighting three immature bald eagles, two broad-winged hawks and one osprey, we sat down for our picnic lunch and plotted other stops for the day. Fortunately, there is always birding hotspot worth checking out in Addison County.

Lesser YellowlegsAt Charlotte Town Beach we spotted a black-bellied plover, two killdeer and a group of common mergansers. At the confluence of Otter and Dead creeks, a flock of 15 lesser yellowlegs with a single least sandpiper were near our viewing point. Further out in the water we could see a great egret and six great blue herons. A late barn swallow flew overhead.

Hoping for more shorebirds we stopped at the ‘Stone Bridge’ and came up with three more lesser yellowlegs, a Cooper’s hawk and an osprey.

When the birding slows down, birders eat ice cream! A stop at Goodie’s Snack Bar in West Addison left everyone smiling. And in an ironic twist to the day, a broad-winged hawk landed in the single tree outside the snack bar, said “nyah nyah nyah” and flew off.

Our last stop of the day was at McCuen Slang, we spotted another great egret, another osprey and a single lesser yellowlegs.



extreme spring birding

Cape May Warbler at Magee MarshPart 1:

May is the month that birders lose all common sense and want to be everywhere at dawn to find the arriving migrants. We certainly enjoy birding our local hotspots, but there are places in the country that concentrate these migrants as they make their way north to their breeding grounds.

In mid-winter a friend emailed me about an upcoming trip in May to Magee Marsh in Ohio with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and did I want to go? After a day of dithering and then reading an article about birding trips in our senior years, I signed up for the tour.

This area is on the south shore of Lake Erie and is a stopover for birds to feed in anticipation the flight across the lake as they head to the north woods. We met the tour group in Ithaca, New York at the Cornell Lab's Sapsucker Woods where the bus awaited eager birders. One of our leaders was none other than Stephen Kress of Project Puffin. Departing Ithaca we were off like migrating birds.

Our first stop was in Erie, Pennnsylvania where we birded Presque Isle State Park, a 3200-acre peninsula that arches out into Lake Erie. This area also gives birds a chance to refuel before continuing on. We stayed overnight and returned in the morning to bird the various habitats there. A nice variety of warblers plus other migrants was tallied. One exciting occurrence was a David Sibley sighting as he led a group for a birding festival.

After lunch it was back on the bus and off to Ohio where we birded the afternoon at the Ottawa NWR, a 6704-acre preserve for migrating birds. Touring the refuge we saw a nice variety of waterfowl and shorebirds.

Sunday morning dawned and with it the much anticipated boardwalk at Magee Marsh. We arrived early before the hordes of other birders. Sun on the trees had the insects in abundance and so too the birds. Standing in one spot we watched the warblers busily feeding: Blackburnian, Cape May, Bay-breasted, Prothonotary and more! We were nearly breathless as we searched the trees and seeing so many birds at once. As the morning wore on the boardwalk became packed, but many eyes found the birds and information was happily shared. As impossible as it seemed in this crowd I met Pat Folsom of the Mad Birders in Waitsfield!

All too soon this time of great birding came to an end. We had our lunch on the shore of the lake and then it was on the bus back to Ithaca.

Part 2:

Red Knot in Cape MayAs if that trip wasn't enough, I met my birding pals in Cape May two weeks later for several days there. Cape May is another important staging area for migrants, both spring and fall. Luckily the moon was full and the horsehoe crabs were laying their eggs. On a tip from a Vermont birder we headed to Reed's Beach and were stunned by the uncountable numbers of birds feasting on the crab eggs. Red Knots, Sanderlings, Willets, Least Sandpipers and more Laughing Gulls than any of us had ever seen!

This was a first for me, seeing shorebirds in breeding plumage as we usually only see them in basic plumage in Vermont on their return trip in the fall. We all agreed that if we saw nothing else on this trip it was worth the effort just to see this spectacle of nature.

Of course we checked out all the other hotspots and saw American Oystercatchers and Black Skimmers tending their nests. The fields and woods had a nice variety of passerines, but that scene on the beach was by far the most exciting.

How fortunate to have witnessed two wonderful nature events in one month and grateful for the Birdwatcher's Digest article on birding in your senior years. Do it now it said while you stil can!


west rutland marsh - july monitoring report

It’s hard to believe 15 years has gone by. In August 2001, Rutland County Audubon members set off on a  monthly monitoring walk at West Rutland Marsh with the idea that maybe we would do it for a year or two and that would be that.

Our first walk was on August 16, 2001 with 15 participants. We reported 45 species including a least bittern, 11 marsh wrens and four unidentified empidonax flycatchers.

People have asked us at the five, ten and now fifteen year anniversaries, what have we learned? Are there fewer birds? More birds? Different birds? The answer is we really don’t know. Trained ornithologists will have to answer those questions someday. As the database at eBird, where all our marsh walk sightings have been reported, grows maybe patterns will eventually be revealed. We are the collectors of the information, boots on the ground so to speak, citizen scientists. We’ve certainly added to the marsh species list over the years. Pine Warbler was our addition this past year.

Besides adding our sightings for science, we’ve made new friends and attracted volunteers for RCAS. For some this was their first and only experience with birding. For others it was a first sighting of a sora or even a song sparrow. A Virginia rail with young has always been a highlight. Children, and even some older participants, have used binoculars for the first time. We’ve had some lively discussions about bird identification. We’ve had quite a few laughs. At times we’ve been distracted by butterflies and snakes and frogs and plants. We’ve all become better birders and naturalists.

Looking back we see we have reached many people. Although it includes many repeats, our records show we have attracted 2,061 participants. Many are now supporters of the marsh, contributing to our marsh fund, participating in Green-Up Day and convincing others the marsh is not a swamp for dumping trash.

Weather has never stopped us. Sometimes we’ve walked with a biting wind and blowing snow in our faces, other times with the sun on our backs. We’ve been caught in a couple summer downpours. During one walk in January the temperature was well below zero. The highlight that day was a pine siskin huddled at a feeder. The walks have all been memorable for one reason or another.

So what happened today, our 180th walk?

Eleven birders participated, about our average for marsh walks, and included a birder from Burlington and another from Johnson. Although it was cloudy and humid, the possible thunderstorms did not materialize.

The best sighting came last. As with the first walk, we saw a least bittern! It flew a short distance as we rounded the corner of Water Street onto Marble.

The raptor count, however, was low with one northern harrier spotted. No Virginia rails were seen or heard. Marsh wrens and swamp sparrows, however, are still singing away.

A female wood duck was spotted with young while a second female was seen in flight.

Three brown thrashers were seen; two just north of the boardwalk and another a bit further up the road. All were strangely silent. The gray catbirds are still yakking away.

Both alder and willow flycatchers were noted, fortunately still singing so we could separate them.

Near the green house, formerly known as the yellow house, there was a mixed flock of barn, tree and northern rough-winged swallows, a portent of the next season. The flock included several immatures.

Warbler action has slowed, but the common yellowthroats and American redstarts are still very vocal. Only one yellow warbler was observed, a female foraging in a tree. Other warbler species were ovenbird and black-throated green warbler.

Today’s tally: 51 species, a bit below last July's total of 57, but two above our average for this month of the year.

The next walk: August 20 (Saturday), 7 a.m.

Today’s list:

Wood Duck  10
Mallard  4
Least Bittern  1   
Northern Harrier  1
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)  8
Mourning Dove  6
Belted Kingfisher  1
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker  4
Downy Woodpecker  1
Hairy Woodpecker  1
Northern Flicker  1
Eastern Wood-Pewee  1
Alder Flycatcher  4
Willow Flycatcher  5
Least Flycatcher  2
Eastern Phoebe  2
Eastern Kingbird  5
Warbling Vireo  1
Red-eyed Vireo  6
Blue Jay  7
American Crow  6
Common Raven  2
Northern Rough-winged Swallow  5
Tree Swallow  12
Barn Swallow  17
Black-capped Chickadee  7
House Wren  1
Marsh Wren  11
Veery  9
American Robin  10
Gray Catbird  12
Brown Thrasher  3
European Starling  11
Cedar Waxwing  36
Ovenbird  1
Common Yellowthroat  17
American Redstart  10
Yellow Warbler  1
Black-throated Green Warbler  1
Song Sparrow  18
Swamp Sparrow  21
Eastern Towhee  1
Scarlet Tanager  1
Northern Cardinal  4
Rose-breasted Grosbeak  2
Red-winged Blackbird  16
Common Grackle  4
House Finch  2
Purple Finch  6
American Goldfinch  17
House Sparrow  1