Book Review: Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence

We admire birds for their beauty and their ability to fly. But few admire birds for their intelligence.

And some birds are quite clever. Corvids such as crows, ravens, rooks, and parrots are among some of the smartest.

Nathan Emery’s Book ‘Bird Brain,’ available at, shines new light on avian intelligence

Corvids are the stars of myths and legends of Native Americans to Viking god Odin’s two ravens, Hugin and Munin. (Thought and Memory).

‘Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence’ by Nathan Emery shines new light on the mental lives of birds. It profiles how our understanding of bird brains and behavior has been revolutionized by recent studies of avian cognition, intelligence, brain anatomy, migration, and tool use.

Nathan Emery’s Book ‘Bird Brain’ Shines New Light on Avian Intelligence

Emery discusses how pigeons use different internal and mechanisms to fly home to roost

Emery, a primatologist-turned-ornithologist, has been at the forefront of this revolution.

Bird Brain is a fascinating read and uses colorful 70+ double-page spreads, each dealing with a separate topic.

It’s not a dense textbook, and the imagery keeps the reader engaged, even when some of the terminology gets to be a bit challenging. Detailed diagrams help illustrate complex information and at times, test the readers’ cognitive abilities.

And it’s easy for the reader to jump around to topics of interest.

This lively and insightful book discusses how birds have sophisticated brains that are capable of abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem-solving, imagination, and insight.

Topics of interest discussed include:

-an overview of the evolution of the bird brain with a detailed timeline

-how birds navigate during migration

-the science behind how birds store their food
-how they communicate with each other using vision and song

Nathan Emery’s Book ‘Bird Brain’ Shines New Light on Avian Intelligence

Rooks in the wild don’t have a need for the use of tools. But in captivity, they have shown to successfully perform tasks that require tools

-how and why individual birds use tools

-whether birds experience empathy

Nathan Emery’s Book ‘Bird Brain’ Shines New Light on Avian Intelligence

Birds that store their food and need o remember the location of their faces to survive a harsh winter have relatively larger hippocampus than other birds that don’t store food

Emery explains that not all birds are born equal and that the problem-solving abilities of crows and parrots are better than those of pigeons and chickens possibly because crows and parrots have relatively larger brains.

He tells us, more neurons mean bigger brains.

But there must be more to this theory than having bigger brains and the answer, provided by a recent study, is that the density of neurons in bird brains is much higher than that in mammals (including primates) and that the density of neurons in corvid and parrot brains is exceptionally high.

The takeaway: this is an exciting area of research with more findings expected as researchers have only begun to explore the intricacies of the bird’s brain.

Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence

By Nathan Emery
Princeton University Press
Hardcover – 192 pages

ISBN-10: 0691165173

ISBN-13: 978-0691165172
Published: September 6, 2016

Help support intoBirds and grab a copy of Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence at through this link.