Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Jennifer Ackerman Week, Part II


Back in 1989 when I first started closing this program with “I’m Laura Erickson, speaking for the Birds,” a few people drew comparisons with Dr. Seuss’s *The Lorax*. But the Lorax spoke for the trees "for the trees have no tongues." Birds definitely have tongues, even nighthawks, whose tongue may be vestigial, but it’s still there. The larynx on birds doesn’t give them a voice as it does for mammals, but only because birds do us one better, with their syrinx. Literally, syrinx means “song box” and, in many species, it produces a much wider range of sounds with a rapidity and complexity that our mere larynx cannot match and our ears cannot process anyway.   

Based on the complexity of their voice production equipment and the sound processing capacity of their ears and brains, birds must be pretty darned articulate. It would be arrogant indeed if I claimed to be speaking for them because they are incapable of making their own case. But I do speak for them in English, translatable to other human languages. We act like it’s exciting news to “discover” that some birds recognize warning calls by other birds, or that squirrels use singing birds to indicate when the coast is clear after a predator has been hanging around, when it’s our species that has so much trouble processing the language of other species. We pretend we could actually communicate with extraterrestrials via machine-produced musical tones in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, when we cannot understand a chickadee or robin’s most basic musical tones in our everyday close encounters of the bird kind.   

Author Jennifer Ackerman seems to understand that. In her introduction to her wonderful new book, The Bird Way, she writes:  
In one arena after another, birds are revealing the secret, sophisticated intelligence underlying their natural—and sometimes seemingly unnatural—behaviors and showing us how consistently we have underestimated what’s going on in their minds. It’s clear that birds are thinking beings, even if they’re thinking about different things, in different ways, than humans do.  
The first section of her superb book is titled simply “Talk.” She writes:  
Birds are the great communicators of the animal world. They talk while they court and while they fight, while they forage and while they travel, while they stave off predators and while they raise their young. They speak with their voices, their bodies, and their feathers. They may not have the facial musculature we primates use to express ourselves, but they can powerfully communicate their inner states with head and body, with facial feathers, crests, gestures, displays of wings and tail…. 
Ackerman traveled the world, going out in the field with the scientists who are studying the nuances of bird behavior and intelligence with open eyes and ears—scientists who have proven false, one after another, preconceived notions our supremely egotistical species has clung to in order to maintain our belief in our superiority. I learned as fact that birds may be able to make alarm calls but lack the ability to specify precisely what danger they’re announcing—that kind of nuance is something only human communication is capable of. Of course, scientists with more open minds have established that that, along with a lot of other so-called facts I learned in ornithology, are simply false.   

One by one, the scientists Ackerman visits with dispense with those tired old tropes and open our eyes to a much more complex intelligence and a higher level of communication in birds than we mere humans had been able to discern for centuries. For example, she quotes Australian wildlife sound researcher Andrew Skeoch, who says that the early morning dawn song is:  
a reaffirmation of place and belonging every morning with mates, family groups, neighbors, and flocks. By avoiding physical confrontations, the dawn chorus reduces risks and stress and conserves energy. It’s a tapestry of vocal behaviors, and it may be the greatest evolutionary achievement of songbirds, allowing them to coexist and to become the wildlife successful and diverse group they are.   
The “Talk” section of the book includes three chapters, “Dawn Chorus,” “Cause for Alarm,” and “Superb Parroting.” It was a very fun read for me, learning of her firsthand experiences in the field with these groundbreaking scientists. It struck me that the people exploring the rich world of bird behavior nowadays are pretty low on the scale of egotism, being open to the idea that their own species is not sitting alone at the pinnacle of evolution, yet those scientists could justifiably feel superior to scientists who for so long approached questions of animal intelligence with thick scales over their eyes from their unshakeable yet unscientific belief that even though our species evolved in the same way as other animals, some magical process at some magical moment set us magically apart from every other species.   

I’m only scratching the surface of the first section of Jennifer Ackerman’s book, and The Bird Way goes way beyond bird communication. I’ll look at the other sections, covering how birds work, play, love, and parent, throughout the rest of the week. 

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