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Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence

bird brain - the book

A new book by Dr. Nathan Emery

How big is a bird’s brain?  Big enough has always been my answer. The tiny hummingbird weighs less than an ounce yet it can remember where every flower in its territory is located and how long it takes to refill with nectar.  Big enough.

A new book by Dr. Nathan Emery goes well beyond my analysis with interesting, fun and informative presentation on the latest research into avian intelligence.

bird brain - the book

There has been a long-held notion that birds possessed highly complex instinctive abilities but that their intelligence was very limited.  Thus the term bird brain was born.   

Things are changing, however. In the past two decades the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. The book reveals how some birds have complex internal worlds as well as well as their instinctive abilities.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain. It 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. This lively 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.

One of my favorite parts of the book is a 2-page time line highlighting key findings in the history of avian brain, learning and cognition.  For example, in 2008 magpies passed the mirror mark test, which is said by some people to be an indication of self-awareness.

Corvids and parrots fall into a category the book describes as the Feathered Ape. Their brains, adjusted for size of the animal, are proportionally as large as those of primates. Other,less studied birds, fall into a group of birds called the Clever Club, and include woodpeckers, hornbills and falcons.  

The book is beautifully illustrated and provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind. And while the topic is avian intelligence; the book to me is really about the study of bird behavior and what that reveals about bird intelligence. It’s the stories of various bird behaviors such as tool use and problem solving that make the book so fascinating.  On a scale of 1-10, I give it a 10!

Nathan Emery is senior lecturer in cognitive biology at Queen Mary University of London. His 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.

Dr. Emery has published research on avian intelligence on the National Center for Biotechnology Information web site in a paper called: Cognitive ornithology: the evolution of avian intelligence.

Alex, the African Gray Parrot
Alex was a very famous parrot that revealed much about the intelligence of parrots.  This Nova presentation on YouTube tells the history of Alex and Animal Cognition Scientist Irene Pepperberg.

The book will be available in August for $29.95.  Published by Princeton University Press.

Review by Sam Crowe


About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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