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Jennifer Ackerman on Taking Counsel from the Corvids

Posted on 12th June 2020 by Mark Skinner

Jennifer Ackerman's The Genius of Birds forever changed the way we think about the avian species, travelling across the globe to reveal behaviours and processes that were equal to those of their human counterparts. Now, in The Bird Way, Jennifer draws on new, cutting edge research to make more radical connections about our feathered friends. In this exclusive essay, she outlines what we can learn from birds - especially during times of uncertainty.    

Many of us are taking more notice of birds during this time, in our gardens and yards, off our balconies, in nearby parks. They have a lot to offer. There’s entertainment and comfort in witnessing them going about their lives in a regular way, resilient, persistent, resourceful, finding mates, building nests, feeding their chicks, filling the dark hours before sunrise with dawn song. But some exciting new discoveries in bird science suggest that birds may also have something important to tell us about what it takes to navigate the world under difficult circumstances. 

Here is some avian advice for humans during times of crisis:

Smell the roses (and milfoil and guano)

If the coronavirus hasn’t deprived you of your sense of smell, take in the scents. As a puffin will tell you, they give both pleasure and information.  Scientists used to think birds had a poor sense of smell or none at all. Now we know otherwise. Birds of all stripes use their sense of smell to navigate, locate burrows and nests, detect chemical signals during courtship, pick mates, avoid predators, and search out food. Nearly every bird tested can detect odors—pigeons, quail, hummingbirds, robins, even sparrows and starlings.  European starlings, for instance, use smell to select plant species to line their nests, picking aromatic plants like milfoil that serve as natural fumigants to protect nestlings from parasites and pathogens. Turkey Vultures are the bloodhounds of the bird world, capable of detecting fragrant molecules drifting up into the air from decaying flesh in concentrations as tiny as a few parts per billion. But seabirds give vultures a run for their money. Puffins have such a fine sense of smell that they can find home, their colony, by scent alone from a distance of nearly five hundred miles. 

Diversify your social circle

Birds demonstrate the benefits of living in diverse social groups and working together to solve problems. Group living offers clear advantages—predator protection (the more vigilant eyes, the better), faster food-finding, quicker problem-solving. In sparrows and magpies, for instance, bigger groups are up to ten times more successful than pairs at problem-solving. Scientists chalk up the greater successes of flock to odds that they include birds with varying abilities and temperaments. Large groups succeed because they’re more likely to contain a diverse range of individuals, some of whom will be very good at problem-solving. New skills are also more likely to be acquired in larger groups (true for humans, too). In fact, studies on sparrows, magpies, and babblers suggest that the demands of an intricate social life may have spurred the evolution of intelligence.

Be flexible and adapt

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent… It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” These words are often attributed to Charles Darwin, but they’re actually from the late Leon Megginson, a professor of marketing at Louisiana State University. House Sparrows have taken to heart the good professor’s words and are now the world’s most widely distributed wild bird. A number of other species—pigeons, crows, wrens—are also well suited to radically changed environments. What is their recipe for success? A taste for novelty, a dash of daring, a penchant for innovating. Birds have taught us: Innovative behavior is often intelligent behavior. It’s the ability to do something new to solve an old problem. Among songbirds, musical accommodation is often key—the will and ability to switch up your tunes to be heard over human-generated cacophony (which lately has dimmed). Some birds seem able to adapt to food shortages and vanishing habitats and even the shifting conditions of climate change. 

Play

Ravens may look funereal and dour, but they’re among the most playful animals on the planet. They’ll toss a rubber ball in the air and catch it lying on their backs. They'll hang upside down and pass a toy from foot to foot. They love to play in water and snow, sliding down a snowy slope multiple times, wrestling over snowballs. Give a raven an empty flowerpot, and it will stick its head in and croak, just to hear the sound of its own echoey voice. Ravens are not alone. All variety of birds toss objects in the air for no apparent purpose.  Babblers and currawongs play king-of-the-castle and tug-of-war with sticks.  Other birds enjoy a good ride, such as Adélie Penguins, which surf down a small ice floe over and over, just like otters on a water slide. Scientists used to think birds and other animals played simply to hone vital life skills needed in adulthood, like hunting or fighting. But new research suggests the purpose of play is far more complex. It may reduce stress, help with brain development, and offer training for the unexpected, encouraging versatility of movement and fostering the ability to recover from stressful situations. Now that’s good to know.  

Co-operate

Birds of all kinds co-operate and collaborate in everything from hunting, courting, and migrating, to raising and defending their young, sometimes even across species lines. Invariably, it boosts their success. During their long, grueling migrations, Northern Bald Ibises take turns in leading and following positions, sharing equitably the burden of being the first bird cutting the wind, so no bird gets too tired to finish the trip. Tits, New Holland Honeyeaters, and Black-Capped Chickadees cooperate across species to defend against predators, warning other kinds of birds and summoning them to mob the threat. The Greater Ani, a tropical cuckoo, is famous for cooperating in raising its young. Anis collectively rear chicks in groups of up to a dozen birds. The group members are unrelated—and yet they work together expertly, building a shared nest, taking turns warming the eggs, looking out for predators, and feeding the young until they fledge. The question is: How do so many birds coordinate all of these activities? The same way a sports team might—through remarkable daily huddles. Several times a day, the birds gather in a cluster and begin to chorus in unison. It’s a weird, bubbly, gurgling synchronous chorus that scientists believe may help the birds make decisions together—about where to build a nest, when to lay eggs, and how to take turns feeding and protecting the young. Anis know: It takes a village.

Observe birds

Do as the Common Cuckoos do. You may have thought cuckoos were lazy cheats, dumping their eggs in host nests and leaving childcare to other species. But these birds are smart and keenly observant. In fact, one expert calls cuckoos and other brood parasites the “world’s best birdwatchers.” They have to be extremely good observers of the species they parasitize—females, especially, to figure out where host nests are, what stage of laying the host female is in, and when the host parents leave the nest so the cuckoo can safely lay her own eggs. 

We would all do well to watch birds more, tune in to their usual and unusual behaviors, learn while we can from their marvelous and still often mysterious ways of being. Even if we don’t plan to leave our children with them.

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