The Bird Way | Jennifer Ackerman

Summary of: The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think
By: Jennifer Ackerman


Embark on a fascinating journey into the lives and minds of our feathered friends through ‘The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think’ by Jennifer Ackerman. Discover the astounding intelligence and creativity of birds as they use tools, manipulate fire, and indulge in strategic hunting. Uncover the playful and nurturing side of these creatures as they create diverse nesting environments and adopt varied parenting styles. This book summary offers a vivid glimpse into the captivating world of birds, surprising us with their innovation, adaptability, and intricate behaviors.

Birds as Ingenious Toolmakers

Birds employ an array of tools to access their food resources, defying the notion of being “bird-brained.” From leaves and dead insects to durable pandanus leaves, crows in New Caledonia, among others, use an impressive range of tools to extract grubs from small holes and cracks. The fact that these birds can create complex tools means they have an image of what they want in their minds before constructing it. Woodpecker finches go a step further by modifying cacti spikes with their beaks to impale insects to eat. The Australian songbird called the Sittella finds food by probing holes in gum trees with specially selected twigs for grub extraction. Overall, the book summary highlights the remarkable intelligence of birds and their ability to use tools to attain precious food resources.

Raptors and Fire

Fire is a vital component of savannas and prairies as it clears off old plant matter, invigorates the soil, and starts new growth, but it also serves as a means of food for birds of prey. Researchers in Oklahoma have counted over 500 raptors during fire season, seven times more than outside the fire season. Raptors depend on the fires to flush out their favorite snacks, like voles, mice, rats, and ground birds, which boosts their abundance and chances of survival. Some raptors, like the “firehawks” in northern Australia, even start their own fires to guarantee the first pick at dinner. Fire has thus become a tool for altering the environment and generating extra calories not only for humans, but also for animals.

Life in the Costa Rican Rainforest

The Costa Rican rainforest is full of both large and small predators. Army ants are a mobile nest of killing machines that attack everything in their path, forcing smaller insects and prey out into the open to be caught by opportunistic predators known as ant followers. These ant birds circle the swarm, using kleptoparasitism to steal food. Although army ants can easily kill ant followers, they’re still an important food source. Ant followers cannot hunt at night, but army ants help to corral their prey, making it easier for ant birds to get their fill of nutritious and large critters like crickets, spiders, and scorpions. Without the ants, it would take these birds an entire day to rack up the same calorie count that they get in just two hours.

The Playful Side of Ravens

Ravens have a reputation for being dark, ominous birds associated with death. However, they also have a playful side that is often overlooked. While their society is hierarchical and disputes usually end in bloodshed, ravens love to play. They surf down pebbled river banks, fly with sticks, and even perform aerial barrel rolls. Although play requires energy that could be used for growing or hunting, scientists speculate that it allows animals to hone life skills. Alternatively, play may simply be pleasurable, as the brains of ravens release dopamine–a chemical associated with sensations of pleasure–when they play. This suggests that play may be a reward in itself for these highly playful birds.

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