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Bird Brain

An exploration of avian intelligence

By Dr Nathan Emery | Ivy Press | Hardback| July 2016 | 192 Pages | Colour Photos & Colour Illustrations | ISBN: 9781782403142

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The Publisher’s View: An absorbing study of how birds think, revealing how science is exploding the myth of our feathered friends being 'bird brained', and how recent discoveries may call for us to re-evaluate how we identify and classify intelligence in other animals. Bird Brain will start by looking at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and move on to examine different types of intelligence by profiling the extraordinary behaviours of a broad range of the species, studying the masterminds of the avian world, and examining what types of behaviour can be interpreted as 'intelligence' as we would recognize it. Bird Brain will not only look at the well-studied species such as New Caledonian crows and parrots, but also cast a broader eye over the behaviour of a wide range of species from around the world.

Author’s Note:I hope readers will be surprised about the capabilities of birds, perhaps hitherto unknown to them. I also hope they learn to appreciate the complexities of the experiments used to test avian intelligence. Birds are very similar to us in many ways, hopefully leading to a greater respect.

The Author:Nathan Emery is Senior Lecturer in Cognitive Biology at Queen Mary University of London. and has a PhD in neuroscience. With the award of a Royal Society University Research Fellowship, he switched to studying the convergent evolution of intelligence in crows and apes. His research interests have focused on what corvids, apes and parrots understand about their social and physical worlds, especially others’ mental states, insight and imagination, as well as the psychology and evolution of innovation and creativity.

He is currently working with the ravens at the Tower of London and ostriches, rheas and emus on a farm in Northamptonshire. He is the author of over 90 publications, including papers in Nature, Science, PNAS and Current Biology.

Fatbirder View: Us lovers of all things avian will not be surprised to learn that ‘bird brain’ should be a term of praise not abuse. Some bird species are up there in what he calls the ‘clever club’ with the elite mammals (us, apes, some cetaceans and probably elephants). What will surprise is that avian brains are very different to ours but arrive at a similar place one supposes though a sort of convergent evolution. Similarly the top of the tree (sorry) if non-passerines is very similar to the top passerine birds. So the crow family and parrots top the bill although some others (woodpeckers, hornbills and some others) are on a par with some monkeys. What will also surprise many is how magpies share a sense of self-recognition that is thought to be confined to higher intelligence.

There is some complex science here covering brain structure and so forth but the author conveys it in brief pithy chapters covering just about any part of the biology, behaviour and skills of birds from migration through to mimicry. In setting out the current understanding of birds’ brains and cleverness we learn masses about behaviour too. I challenge anyone not to exclaim their equivalent of ‘well I never’ or ‘how clever is that’ many times even flipping through this book. Here’s one of mine… drongos mimic alarm calls of other birds when they see that they have found a good food source, thus scaring them away so the drongo can feast… how clever is that!

I’ll be going back to this book again and again and snaffling loads of ‘did you knows’ to foist on my friends and family… ‘…a fascinating read’ is often used by reviewers when, frankly a book is self-indulgent and boring so it’s well over used… but this book really warrants that phrase… every page held my attention and wonderment. One of my top reads of 2016!

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19th November 2016