Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Intelligent Birds – A Review of “Gifts of the Crow”

With one significant reservation I really enjoyed this book. I love watching birds visiting the feeders in my garden, especially the magpies, and knew that the crow family included some of the most intelligent birds. I am also, as can be seen by other posts on this blog, very interested in animal intelligence, and what it can tell us about human intelligence. This book contains some wonderful accounts of, for example, the ability of crows to recognise individual people, and the account of ravens surfing the Colorado winds makes one wonder what other things they can get up to which have not yet been documented. Details are brought together of many accounts of apparently intelligent behaviour, together with descriptions of well planned experiments, which combine to make you realize how smart some birds really are. For those who want to explore further there are extra notes and an extensive bibliography. If you are interested in animal intelligence or bird behaviour this book is a “must read”.

The problem is that really it is not one book but two. The part I have described is concerned with the behavioural evidence which demonstrates the intelligent behaviour in the crow family. It is written in an easy to read style – and the description on the dust cover confines itself to this part of the book, suggesting that the publishers were also aware of the problem and avoided mentioning something which could put some readers off. There is no doubt that if the book stopped at the point I described above I would be very happy to give a copy to an intelligent 12 year old bird watching enthusiast and suggest that they start looking for, and recording, the behaviour of the crows and magpies they see. It would encourage them to realise that everyone can make interesting and original scientific observations and possibly they would later decide to follow a career as a scientist.

However the book also deals in detail at the structure and biochemistry of the bird brain. Where this is covered in the appendix I have no problem with it, but the real problem is that in many places in the body of the book the subject suddenly switches, in mid page, to a technical description relating to the internal works of the brain and enzymes that are involved. This suddenly increases the “reading age” of the text from the young amateur scientist level to something approaching the graduate scientist level. The juxtaposition with field observations sometimes gives the impression that the “intelligent” behaviours that have just been described were directly followed up by detailed laboratory research on the same birds, which was not the case. On other occasions the technical discussion does not really help the argument as to whether the described behaviour was really intelligent or not. My opinion is that the book would have been more accessible to more people if this specialist material had been relegated to the Appendix, where it would still be available to those interested in understanding what is currently known about the internal workings of a bird's brain.

Gifts of the Crow: by John Marzluff and Tony Angell, Free Press, June 2012, ISBN 978-1-4391-9873-5

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