The Columbia Audubon Society hosted a book discussion of Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds on March 21, 2018 at the Daniel Boone Regional Library in Columbia, MO. This event featured a combination of group discussion and audio/visual information such as video clips of birds or events mentioned in the book and scientific information. After receiving several requests for our discussion outline and online resources, we’re posting a version here for use by other groups or individuals interested in reading/studying this fascinating book. Our group didn’t have time to address all of the ideas below, but the collection may be useful to others. Please feel free to address further questions to the original organizer, Eric Reuter. Many thanks to Joanna Reuter for researching and compiling the links.

Potential discussion topics by chapter, with useful links

  • Introduction:
    • Share any personal stories about bird intelligence or related behavior.
    • Does language use mean intelligence?
    • Bird-watching can be observation, not just identification: how does reading this book influence your interest in actually watching birds?
    • Alex the parrot
  • Chapter 1:
  • Chapter 2:
  • Chapter 3:
    • Which came first, tools or intelligence?
    • Do islands or other isolated habitats stimulate or suppress the development of intelligence?
    • Snowboarding crow
  • Chapter 4:
    • Collective learning; how do birds work together? For example, we shared how our free-range chickens have showed an ability to distinguish between dangerous and safe hawk species.
    • Cooperative versus thieving behavior: benefits and disadvantages of each.
  • Chapter 5:
  • Chapter 6:
  • Chapter 7:
    • Factors influencing navigation and how human activities affect these (such as EM fields and night lighting).
    • Have human changes to the landscape affected migration patterns (such as altering river courses, clearing forests, building new linear roads, etc.)?
    • What happens to migration when the earth’s EM field reverses polarity as it does on a regular basis (in geologic time, anyway)?
    • Pigeon breeds
    • Tornadic storm avoidance in songbirds
  • Chapter 8:
    • Are humans influencing evolution? Example of a UK study showing that birds were rapidly evolving beaks more suited to bird feeders.
    • Book mentions a study showing that mixed-used (diversified) agricultural landscapes were as biodiverse as “natural” preserves, and both far more so than single-use agricultural landscapes. This fits our own experience as diversified organic farmers; what are the implications for land management choices? Are well-run farms as important as nature areas?
    • House Sparrow nest in oil pump (PDF)
    • House Sparrow range (eBird)
    • Sparrow opening automatic door

Another broad discussion point: birds as individuals vs. populations. It’s easy to assume that your yard birds are a stable population, but within that group are constantly changing individuals; can an observer start to pick out the individuals from the flock?

Other miscellaneous resources: