Bird Brains by Candace Savage

Bird Brains
Recommended for novice bird watchers, visual readers
Read from October 29 to November 13, 2012
★   ★   ★   1/2

Bird-brain is by no means an insult. When I happened upon the book Bird Brains by Candace Savage at the library, I was delighted by the potential mix of one of my passions, animal intelligence, and positive PR for a widely maligned species. Alas, then, when I discovered this book was heavy on the pictures, light on the intelligence studies–none of the three studies most widely publicized studies I knew of concerning crow intelligence were mentioned.

Despite pretensions at erudition, this is clearly a coffee-table book. Bird Brains contains beautiful pictures, lovely quotes, bits of folklore and mythology. Oh yes, and alliterative cleverness in the form of the title and table of contents (‘Brainy Birds,’ ‘Beginnings,’ ‘Belonging,’ ‘Bread and Butter Issues’). Oy. Organization is jumbled, with full-page pictures and sidebar quotes breaking up the writing almost every other page. Photos clearly show the Sierra Club publishing heritage–the photos are gorgeous and detailed, and without doubt calendar-worthy. Overall, however, it is heavier on the gloss than information. Much of the material is general biology related, educating the reader about nesting, growth, and foraging. Studies mentioned are usually in context of ‘natural’ behavior, or birds reacting and adapting to environmental changes such as selection of nesting sites by experienced birds.

Ideally, it would have contained more science about ‘intelligence’ and less description and analysis of ‘natural’ behaviors. Want to know just how smart crows and corvids are? Check out these studies:

The first comes from a fortunate accident in the midst of studying crow selection of tools. Tool-use was originally considered one of the distinguishing characteristics of human intelligence, but when we discovered other species use objects/tools, we added the caveat of tool creation. A pair of crows were given access to two tools, one wire with a hook at the end and the other a straight wire. Their favorite treat was then hidden beneath a bell-like container with a loop at the top. The male used the hooked wire, obtained his treat, and being male, flew off with his tool. The female, left frustrated without a useable tool, took the straight wire and made a hook at the end. Here was an example of a crow fashioning a tool out of a material she had never used-–she had only used pipecleaners over a year before this study.

Video of the crow using a hooked wire to access treats:…

Crows seem to have a knack for thwarting researchers’ aims. Once again, study innovation resulted from accidental findings. As part of a 5 year study, scientists trapped and banded baby crows in the area. Every year the researchers came back, they found themselves dive-bombed and attacked by a flock of angry crows, even ones that had nothing to do with the banding. Wondering at how unfamiliar crows learned that the researchers were ‘dangerous’ turned into another study examining facial recognition. This time researchers did the banding wearing masks–a caveman and a Dick Cheney mask (the primary researcher is not without humor). Crows reacted more strongly when re-exposed to the caveman mask, the one used for the banding/crownapping behavior. Then, when new people wore the masks while walking in the area, not even attempting threatening behavior, the crows responded with warning cries and mobbing behavior. The author theorizes the crows are teaching other crows in their flocks, and long-term studies seem to bear it out–Marzluff reports 47 of 53 crows seen reacted to him on a recent walk when he wore one of the banding masks.

The final interesting study has been surrounded by some controversy, and research clouded by anecdotal reports. Crows are one of at least three avian species that know how to break open food sources by dropping them from heights. Urban stories exist of them using cars as part of the process, even garnering a mention in an Attenborough production:… However, a study analyzing reports of such behavior in California do not prove reliance on cars, only use of the ‘dropping’ method. It is worth noting, however, that apparently they vary heights based on food type, a highly complex and learned behavior.

Upshot? Looking for a sophisticated discussion of corvid intelligence, this likely would not be your best bet. However, it is a decent introduction to crow behavior that would appeal to the highly visual reader. A solid three and a half stars for me.

For my science-geek readers, the original article on crows and tool use is at…

The free NYT article on facial recognition:…

The scholarly article on facial recognition:…

The article on nut-dropping:…

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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