Book Review: Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence by Nathan Emery

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Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence by Nathan Emery. Princeton University Press. Review by Amar-Singh HSS (Dr.), August 2016


“I receive this wonderful book for review 2-3 weeks ago but held on to doing my review because I wanted to read it cover-to-cover and savour the sheer beauty of it; I want to do justice to this review. I’ve been watching birds for more than four decades and occasionally have been ‘happily accused’ of anthropomorphising birds (although I am just as happy to attribute animal behaviour to humans). This bias on my part, my love for birds and my desire to understand their behaviour, needs to be considered in reading this review.

“Nathan Emery is a senior lecturer in cognitive biology at Queen Mary University of London. He is a well-known researcher in animal intelligence, well published and eminently suitable to write on this subject. He states, in his acknowledgements that his wife, Nicky Clayton, ‘introduced me to the wonder of birds’ and that is what comes through the whole book.

“’Bird Brain’ is a book-alive, wonder-full in every page, picture and diagram. Although it is a book based on scientific studies and quotes much research conducted, the literature is delicious; dripping with honey. This is science-made-interesting, birds-made-excitingly-intelligent and reading-made-fascinating. Seldom have I read such a book on ‘science’ that uses such interesting and captivating language to express important concepts. The figure below is a small attempt to share a small fraction of the many fascinating heading and terms used.

BookRevies- Bird brain [AmarSingh]
[Plate 1 above: The Oriental Magpie Robins are one of the most intelligent birds with a large vocabulary and learn quickly. The phrases incorporated are a small fraction of the many fascinating heading and terms used by Nathan in his book. Photograph credit: Amar-Singh HSS]

“I learned much about bird cognition, the many experiments conducted and the detailed observations that have been made to understand birds better. Nathan is always careful not to over interpret the data but as he clearly illustrates from scientific studies and careful research that ‘the term, bird-brain’ should be used as compliment not an insult!’

BookRevies- Bird brain [AmarSingh]
[Plate 2: An example of ‘bill-twinning’ (Avian kissing) by Oriental Pied Hornbills, explained on page 159 of Nathan’s book. Photograph credit: Amar-Singh HSS]

BirdBrain-boxed {AmarSingh] (1)

“Nathan uses many diagrams, analogies and stories to illustrate and explain data and concepts clearly. His book is grounded in evidence. He often pointed out realities that I had intuitively known about birds from many years of observation. The ‘box’ on the right is an account from one of my books that offers an insight into ‘animal empathy’ (see page 158 of Nathan’s book) but of a cross-species nature.

“Some of the Exciting Facts on Birds that were new to me:
• Birds can generate new neurons when needed.
• Birds have true multitasking, i.e. they can use each side of the brain independently. I now recognise that we humans only do ‘many tasking’!
• Size is not relevant (brain size does not equate with abilities or functions).
• Birds are tetrachromatic, i.e. being able to see in the ultraviolet spectrum as well.

“My only issue with the book is that the main text is in a ‘thin, light font’ which makes reading a strain for older individuals like me.

“In summary this is an enchanting book on science. I could carry on expressing how this book stands head and shoulders above the rest with sheer genius in construction and use of language, but what I would like is for every child to get a copy and be inspired. All bird watchers and enthusiasts need to read it. I look forward with anticipation to more wonderful work from this gifted writer and scientist.”

About the reviewer:
Dato’ Dr Amar-Singh HSS is a senior consultant paediatrician with the Ministry of Health Malaysia. He heads a regional paediatric department and a regional research centre. He has been watching birds for more than 40 years and has published 2 books on local birds. He has been a regular contributor to the ‘Bird Ecology Study Group’ and ‘Oriental Bird Images’ sites.

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