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A science writer weaves a vivid portrait of avian culture, communication, and care

The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think

Jennifer Ackerman
Penguin Press
368 pp.
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From tales of dazzling plumage to anecdotes about almost unfathomable mimicry, Jennifer Ackerman’s The Bird Way is a walk through the mysteries, wonders, and peculiarities of the avian world. Thematically grouped into five parts (talk, work, play, love, and parent), the book discusses important aspects of every bird’s life.

“There is the mammal way and there is the bird way,” writes Ackerman in the book’s opening line, quoting a scientist’s pithy distinction from which the title is drawn. But there is no such thing as a singular “bird way.” Indeed, for every aspect of bird life—be it foraging, the establishment and maintenance of social systems, or parental care—much about the “bird way” varies across species.

Stories of remarkable animal behaviors are often stories about attributes and abilities we once believed made humans special. Think of tool use, culture, and the theory of mind, for example. In The Bird Way, Ackerman explores birds that are capable of sophisticated behaviors, from crows that manufacture their own hook tools; to raptors that some scientists believe intentionally start fires to flush out prey; to hummingbirds that remember not only where but also when they visited nectar-filled flowers, returning only after the flowers have had time to replenish their stores. Given some of our less-inspired human endeavors—introducing kudzu to control erosion, for example—“it would seem,” Ackerman pointily observes, “that our species can be fairly inept at using the past to plan for the future.”

Much of our knowledge about the avian world is rooted in research focused on birds in the temperate zones of Europe and North America. But as more work is conducted in other parts of the world, behaviors that were once thought to be typical—for example, that only males sing complex songs at dawn and dusk and defend their territories exclusively during the short breeding season—might not be the norm after all. “Welcome to Australia,” Ackerman writes at one point, “land of avian outlaws.” Here, we find bell miners that call all day long and year-round; male and female whipbirds that duet so seamlessly they sound like a single bird calling; and birds that defend their territory in all seasons.

The book follows researchers around the world, taking the reader on adventures and relating mishaps that will be only too familiar to field biologists. Some projects that Ackerman describes are entirely observational, whereas others use new technological approaches to reveal details that hide in plain sight, such as the body flips performed by male black manakins that are simply too fast for the human eye to perceive.

Finding food is arguably one of the main tasks in a bird’s everyday life. What birds eat and the way they acquire food is as variable as we can imagine. In Costa Rica, for example, antbirds take advantage of raiding ants, which flush out hidden arthropods during their voracious feeding frenzies, leaving a veritable buffet for the antbirds in their wake. But the various antbird species are not just scavengers. Among them are specialists—the ocellated antbird, for example—that track the locations of multiple ant colonies, noting their state (raiding or stationary), and seem to be able to share this information with others.

Parental care is another area where birds employ just about every strategy imaginable. The Australian brush turkey, for example, meticulously conducts daily temperature checks inside its huge nest, called a mound, and will adjust surface materials to maintain optimum temperature for the development of its eggs yet offers no care once its offspring have hatched. Meanwhile in Panama, unrelated pairs of greater ani will build a communal nest and divide the labor of incubating and raising their young.

At times, an evolutionary arms race plays out; consider the cuckoo, which lays its eggs in other species’ nests. It has long been known that as the cuckoos’ eggs evolve to more closely mimic those laid by their hosts, the hosts are adapting too, improving their ability to discriminate between eggs. In Australia, some hosts have a different strategy: Although they are unable to discriminate between eggs, they have learned to tell their own young from a cuckoo chick (which, in turn, can look like, and learn to mimic the begging calls of, the host species’ young).

The avian world is full of wonders, and Ackerman’s excitement and love for it are evident in her writing. Her superb storytelling paints a rich picture that engages the reader’s imagination, making sometimes-hard-to-grasp research accessible.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Cognitive and Cultural Ecology Group, Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, 78315 Radolfzell, Germany.