A delightful book with broad appeal.

READ REVIEW

THE THING WITH FEATHERS

THE SURPRISING LIVES OF BIRDS AND WHAT THEY REVEAL ABOUT BEING HUMAN

Birding associate editor Strycker (Among Penguins: A Bird Man in Antarctica, 2011) backs up his claim that “[b]ird behavior offers a mirror in which we can reflect on human behavior.”

The author pinpoints experiments beginning in the 1970s that examined the amazing memory of nutcrackers, which were able to survive cold winters at high elevations by stashing pine seeds in the ground. Surpassing the memory skills of most humans, “[i]n one fall season, a single nutcracker may store tens of thousands of pine seeds in as many as 5,000 different mini-caches, which he will retrieve in winter.” Strycker writes about how bird fanciers puzzled over this feat, since the birds left no obvious signs of how they did it. By a process of elimination, an ornithologist designed an experiment that demonstrated how the nutcrackers oriented to landmarks in the environment to build three-dimensional mental maps. Even more intriguing are magpies, which join the select company of humans and great apes, elephants, dolphins and orcas in recognizing their own images in mirrors. Seemingly, this is an indication of self-awareness and a capacity for qualities such as empathy. What, then, asks the author, can we say about pet dogs, which fail to self-recognize in mirrors yet do demonstrate empathy? Referencing the behavior of Antarctic penguins, which only jump into the ocean in groups to avoid the seals that feed on them but are calm in the presence of humans, Strycker weighs in on the nurture/nature debate and concludes that, for us and penguins, “emotion itself is innate, fear of particular things is regulated by experience.” The author speculates that the behavior of fairy-wrens, a species that sometimes assists feeding nonrelated birds, serves as an expression of altruism in nature, and he attributes the abilities of homing pigeons to the intelligent use of sensory clues.

A delightful book with broad appeal.

Pub Date: March 20, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-59448-635-7

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2014

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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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