bird brain

Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence by Dr. Nathan Emery 

If I tell you that Bird Brain reads like a textbook, does it make you cringe and consider closing the browser window?

Allow me to add, with haste, that it makes for an incredibly gorgeous, engaging, approachable textbook that I wish all textbooks I've ever encountered could have been like. Does that help?

There are many books out there on bird behaviors, including intelligence. Since I'm a bit obsessed with corvids, I tend to gravitate towards these books but sometimes, sometimes, they can be a bit more... involved than I am willing to invest at the time. This is a ridiculous declaration, I must insist, because I find this sort of thing fascinating and who doesn't want more and more details and evidence and studies about the thing they're obsessed with? 

I suppose that sometimes it's just the density, the depth of scientific diving, the discussion about things I may appreciate but am unlikely to retain in my everyday life wherein I am fascinated by ravens and crows to the extent that I will follow them about, but they, unfortunately, don't tend to factor into dinnertime discussions. 

(And to provide further honesty, I'm typically disappointed as to the images provided in most books like these - often dull silhouettes of the subject, black and white, grainy shots from studies, that sort of thing. When one is learning about such magnificent creatures, shouldn't the images reflect that excitement?)

Emery strikes a fantastic balance here, providing enough scientific discussion for those who want to invest in it to be happy but not too much that one's mind starts wandering into distraction or confusion. The charts and diagrams are helpful and in depth enough to feel like Emery trusts his audience to have more than a third graders' understanding of the processes. Grainy, disappointing study images are replaced with beautiful illustrations and full page layouts are given over to gorgeous portraits of the birds being discussed. 

Emery covers all the bases for indications of avian intelligence, including food finding, migration, mating rituals, social interactions, teaching, extended logic-indicating behavior, and even empathy and grieving (and further explains just how signs of empathy are indicators of intelligence). There were some things that I, as a reader already invested in the subject, knew about but there was quite a bit here that I didn't; certainly enough be surprised and pleased. For example, I knew about and have seen images and film of male bowerbirds creating these large, complicated, and even artistic (to human eyes) bowers in their mating efforts, but didn't previously understand that they actually intentionally create these illusions that make the bowers appear to have a depth they do not actually have.

This is a gorgeous book, both scientifically and artistically. 

Princeton University Press, who provided an advanced copy for my review, releases Bird Brain on September 14, 2016.