Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence: Book Review

When being referred to as a bird brain, people often are insulted by the idiom rather than complemented by the fact that avian species are remarkable in their adaptations and aptitudes.

In the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well.

Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence is a beautifully illustrated book that provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.


Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world.

I particularly enjoyed the chicken section – of course – which explained how social birds climb the social ladder, know their place and recognize one another.


“Different breeds of chickens look quiet distinct, with their different colored plumage and types of combs. Although these breeds have been artificially produced, we assume that each breed recognizes the others as different and that even though we might have trouble telling individuals apart, they don’t.”

It’s also extraordinary to think that in very large colonies, such as penguins, that chicks are able to call and recognize their seemingly identical parents in a millisecond. According to the book penguin chicks don’t even need to use all of their contact call. Only the first 0.23 sec (half a syllable) and the first three harmonics is enough to discriminate their parent’s voices.

This science-based and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by Nathan Emery, a senior lecturer in cognitive biology at Queen Mary University of London, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds. Emery is a leading expert on animal cognition and the book features a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence.

Emery’s research interests focus 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. He is the coeditor of Social Intelligence: From Brain to Culture and The Cognitive Neuroscience of Social Behaviour, and is on the editorial board of the journals Animal Cognition and Journal of Comparative Psychology. He is the author of more than eighty publications, including papers in NatureScience, and Current Biology. His work has been extensively covered by international newspapers and magazines, in books, and on TV.

Bird Brain is a winner. It is engaging and very well written, and the illustrations are excellent—dramatic, informative, and fun.”–Frank Gill, author of Ornithology

The book starts with a chapter explaining the evolution of human thought from thinking birdbrain to feathered ape. The book then explores how birds are master navigators, not just in flight, but also in retrieving hidden food. Avian communication and tool use is then explored. The final chapter discusses how the latest research on bird intelligence not only effects how we think about birds but also questions our own humanity.


The book is 192 pages and includes 175 colored illustrations. In addition to high quality photographs, the book includes detailed cladograms, migration maps, and drawings of cognitive trials which birds have successfully mastered demonstrating their unique brainpower. Another fascinating illustration was a world distribution map of avian tool use. Of the 10,000 species of birds, only a few are known to use tools and even a smaller percentage have been observed making tools in captivity. Some bird species where well known, such as New Caledonian Crows and Kea with their probing tools, while others less so like Burrowing Owls using dung as bait.

The book is set to be released at the end August 2016 by Princeton University Press.

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