Author Interview: The Bird Way by Jennifer Ackerman

Saturday, 25 July 2020

The Bird Way by Jennifer Ackerman
Released: 2nd July 2020
Published by: Scribe Publications
Genre: Non-Fiction
Source: Publisher
Pages: 368
From the New York Times bestselling author of The Genius of Birds, here is a radical examination of the bird way of being and of recent scientific research that is dramatically shifting our understanding of birds — how they live and how they think. ‘There is the mammal way and there is the bird way.’ This is one scientist’s pithy distinction between mammal brains and bird brains: two ways to make a highly intelligent mind. But the bird way is much more than a unique pattern of brain wiring, and, lately, scientists have taken a new look at bird behaviours.

What they are finding is upending the traditional view of how birds conduct their lives, how they communicate, forage, court, breed, and survive. They’re also revealing not only the remarkable intelligence underlying these activities, and disturbing abilities we once considered uniquely our own — deception, manipulation, cheating, kidnapping, and infanticide — but also ingenious communication between species, cooperation, collaboration, altruism, culture, and play.

Drawing on personal observations, the latest science, and her bird-related travel around the world, from the tropical rainforests of eastern Australia and the remote woodlands of northern Japan, to the rolling hills of lower Austria and the islands of Alaska’s Kachemak Bay, Ackerman shows there is clearly no single bird way of being. In every respect — in plumage, form, song, flight, lifestyle, niche, and behaviour — birds vary. It’s what we love about them.

As E.O. Wilson once said, when you have seen one bird, you have not seen them all.
Jennifer Ackerman's passion for her subject shines through in this absolute delight of a book. Insightful and a joy to read, The Bird Way provides inspiration to look up and around at these creatures which we have so much to learn from!

Author Interview with Jennifer Ackerman

Congratulations on publishing The Bird Way! How did the writing experience for this book compare to your others such as Chance in the House of Fate, The Genius of Birds and Birds by the Shore?

Thank you! Working on The Bird Way was pure joy. For all three of my bird-related books, I spent a great deal of time in the field with ornithologists and other bird researchers, which is what I really love to do. Some of my books, such as Chance in the House of Fate and Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream (SSEDD), involved a lot of deep and difficult research on molecular biology and human biology, reading papers and talking with scientists about the genetic and cellular mechanisms we share with other organisms or the way the body works. Then my task was to try to translate the hard science into a lively and accessible narrative about the natural history of inheritance (Chance) or what’s going on in the body over the course of a 24-hour day (SSEDD). For The Genius of Birds and The Bird Way, too, I read numerous papers, but I also traveled around the world to explore bird intelligence and behavior with experts at their field study sites and to meet their birds. I loved every minute of these experiences, especially in Australia.

What are three things you wish people knew more about bird watching?

The birds in your backyard or local park are worth watching, especially for their behavior. There’s no such thing as a boring bird! 

It’s worth putting in the time to learn birding by ear.  I’ve never been very good at identifying birds by their calls, but it’s an invaluable skill and enriches birdwatching enormously. I love to go out in the field with people who are really good at this.

Once you start, you’ll never want to stop.  Birdwatching reminds you that you’re part of a world that’s big and beautiful and wildly diverse. 

Is there a particular moment in your expeditions so far which defined what you love about it?

Stumbling on a male Superb Lyrebird performing on his mound in the Toolangi rainforest. I was with my friend Andrew Skeoch, a superb wildlife sound recording artist, looking for the lyrebirds.  We had slogged up a very wet trail and seen signs of the birds everywhere, scratchings in the soil, and we could hear them from a great distance. But they seemed to be always just out of sight. Finally, late in the day, on the way back down through the forest, we heard one burst into glorious song just up the bank from the trail. It was a magnificent, resonant, booming voice, and Andrew stood next to me whispering the names of all the birds of the forest that the lyrebird was imitating. (Later, I’d learn how the lyrebird actually uses its mimicry to lie to other birds!) The lyrebird flashed its spectacular lyre-shaped tail feathers, and then it was gone. Utterly magical.

Without giving too much away, is there a favourite region or particular species that fascinated you the most while writing The Bird Way?

It’s really hard to pick just one. Meeting the Kea Parrots of New Zealand was a delight. I first met them in an aviary in Austria, the world’s biggest lab for studying Kea. I was warned to take off all of my jewelry, my watch, my barrettes, etc. before I went into their aviary because the birds are so inquisitive, they’ll explore everything they can get their beaks on. I fell in love with them almost immediately. They are incredibly bold, curious, smart, and just downright adorable. In their native New Zealand, they’re called “Clowns of the Mountains” because they’re so cheeky, funny, and playful. And it’s their use of play that I found particularly intriguing. But I won’t give that away here.

How do you think learning more about bird behaviours can help us become better people?

In so many ways. For one thing, focusing on a form of life other than our own helps us understand that we’re not unique in the ways we once thought we were. We share intelligence, behaviours, emotions, and consciousness with birds and other animals. Also, birds model fascinating behaviors. Species of all kinds cooperate and collaborate in everything from hunting, courting, and migrating, to raising and defending their young, sometimes even across species lines. Invariably, it boosts their success. Birds demonstrate the benefits of living in diverse social groups and working together to solve problems. They show us how to be flexible and adapt—and even the great benefits of play.

What has been your career highlight so far?

Researching and writing bird books!

What do you think still needs to be discovered about the bird world and how to conserve endangered species?

We have much to learn. For so many threatened, rare, or elusive bird species, there’s a scarcity of biological information about breeding habits, movement, and ecology, information needed to assess the status of bird populations and to manage their conservation effectively.  The Australian researchers I spoke with--to a person--all lamented the paucity of research, the critical knowledge gaps about threatened and endangered species that prevent good management.  One of the brilliant researchers addressing this issue is Rob Heinsohn, a conservation biologist at Australian National Univeristy.  

Rob runs a research program called the Difficult Bird Research Group (DBRG) dedicated to studying Australia’s most endangered birds and understanding their ecology and conservation. Rob says that these birds, such as the Orange-billed Parrot, the Swift Parrot, the Regent Honeyeater, the Superb Parrot, the Forty-spotted Pardalote, and several others, often fall into the “too hard basket” because they’re difficult to find, often occurring in remote, wild, and rugged terrain, and highly mobile, moving around a lot.  The DBRG conducts research aimed at understanding these species and pulling them back from the ‘brink’ of extinction.

Could you give us a sneak peek at what you're working on next?

Another bird book, this one focused on a particular bird family that’s ubiquitous and beloved around the world.  That’s all I’ll say for now!

About the author

Jennifer Ackerman has been writing about science, nature, and human biology for almost three decades. Her most recent books include Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream: a day in the life of your body; Ah-Choo: the uncommon life of the common cold; Chance in the House of Fate: a natural history of heredity; The Genius of Birds; and Birds by the Shore. A contributor to Scientific American, National Geographic, The New York Times, and many other publications, Ackerman is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship in Nonfiction, a Bunting Fellowship, and a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.