The Bird Way by Jennifer Ackerman


My book choices have been unusual in this strange time and perhaps this is the strangest of them all. I have always had a strong dislike of birds. As I child, I was terrified the chickens would touch me. As an adult I am keenly aware of birds as disease carriers. They have not endeared themselves to me in recent years when they come in flocks and drunkenly eat berries from our holly trees, leaving our car and a walkway filthy. Then there’s their determination to build nests at the top of a pillar on our porch despite the many perfectly good bushes and trees nearby. With this choice I was hoping to improve my outlook a bit.

The overarching message is that scientists are establishing that bird behavior is less often mere instinct than previously thought; they use tools, they learn behavior, their communication is complex, and they play. The author describes studies from many locations, including some notable ones from Australia.

I can’t say why, but Australia seems to have more than its share of outlandish animals. I had already seen David Attenborough’s amazing video showing a lyre bird imitating other birds like kookaburras, as well as camera shutters, car alarms, and chain saws. So it was great to see what the author had learned about these birds and understand some of what drives their behavior.

One impressive use of tools by birds in evidence in Australia is their fire-spreading tactic. Birds there forage for food that becomes available during a fire; the fleeing prey are easy pickings. Long-standing Aboriginal knowledge has it that some birds pluck smoldering sticks from a fire and drop them where there is no fire and wait for the rodents and reptiles to run to escape it. Reports of observations by fire fighters and researchers confirm this activity is widespread.

The author’s description of birds at play is a hoot. It’s hard to imagine playful ravens, the bird that Ackerman notes Edgar Allan Poe described as “that grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore.” As adults these birds are territorial, kill one another and are ferocious hunters. Yet they are among the most playful of animals, especially when they are young. She tells us, “One captive raven was observed tossing a rubber ball in the air again and again and catching it while lying on its back.” They have been observed sliding down the high bank of a river on rolling pebbles croaking loudly with apparent enjoyment. Nearby ravens croaked approval and later took their turns at the fun. My favorite image is of ravens playing in the snow; they slide down a hill, jump to catch snowballs thrown to them, and best of all, one bird is seen yanking the leg of another and the other grabs a leg of the first, so they both tumble over in the snow.

Perhaps you thought it was only crocs, spiders, snakes, and Portuguese man of war jellyfish you had to worry about in Australia. According to this book 85% of the population has suffered an attack of the fierce Australian magpies protecting their nests. They may swoop in from behind and attack your head if you happen to walk in an area where they have a nest. Some of the magpies attack only people on bicycles, some focus on postal carriers who ride scooters, and some only attack pedestrians. The pedestrian-focused attackers have their nests in the same area all their lives; they know and remember the humans there. They live 20 years so if they suspect you once of having designs on their young, you could be in danger for the next twenty years.

The author lives in Charlottesville and has written two other books about birds, as well as books about science, nature, and human biology. She read the audiobook and I was completely charmed by her little chuckle that crept in at least once. It is undeniable that birds are intelligent and adaptable in ways we like to think only humans are capable of. This book reminded me of that wonderful story of the African Grey Parrot (Alex & Me) whose obituary appeared in The Economist.

Having read this, I now know I should be wondering what those crows who are coming closer to my house this spring have in mind.

Jennifer Ackerman, The Bird Way, Penguin Press, 2020, 368 pages (I listened to the audiobook). On order at the UVa library, available from Amazon.

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