Review: Bird Minds

The Book: Bird Minds
The Author: Gisela Kaplan

The term “bird brain” should not be an insult.

In this accessible but comprehensive book, Gisela Kaplan quickly reveals that the intelligence of our feathered friends is to be admired, not ridiculed. Indeed, as she points out, birds on the whole tend to be smarter than mammals. In addition, not only should we be in awe of the cognitive abilities of avifauna, but as Australian readers will discover, we should be particularly proud of our own uniquely brainy birds. However, if you’re looking for easy answers as to how the brains of our bird friends work, then this is not the book for you. While easy to read, this text is an objective discussion of the various theories surrounding the nuances of cognition. Nevertheless, in her final chapter, Kaplan provides us with some indication as to who among our bird species may be considered “smart” and for what reasons.

Combining evidence from scientific research with her lifetime of experience spent observing native Australian birds, her book is not only thorough but relatable. Foraging and tool-use is discussed at length, followed by the art of nest and bower-building. Boldly, she also tackles the subject of brain size as an indicator of intelligence. In the process, she debunks a number of myths no doubt common in the minds of contemporary readers. Furthermore, she discusses the significance of brain size in an evolutionary context and provides the reader with an insight into the reasons behind some of our bigger-brained birds.  

Of particular interest to me is her discussion of play behaviour. Compared with the relative secrecy of reproduction, play behaviour in our native birds is readily observable and can be easily witnessed by anyone in the community at no great cost to effort or time. I’ve often wondered at the purpose of playing in birds – it’s something I often witness in magpies – and I was captivated while reading Kaplan’s objective analysis of the various thoughts on this subject. She carefully lays out the existing assumptions and evidence, with her examination having important implications for cognitive development in vertebrate species more broadly.  


This book is easy to read, covers a breadth of cognitive queries, and discusses a number of Australia’s more prominent and unique bird species. However, I would argue the true value of possessing it is in its potential to broaden the understanding any reader – regardless of their education – has of the way animals other than ourselves think and make sense of the world around them. All of us, even children, ponder this question from time to time. Here, Kaplan gifts the reader with the latest knowledge from the frontline of research, and in doing so ensures they never look at a magpie the same way again.

This book belongs on your bookshelf if... you are an avid bird enthusiast interested in a detailed, academic account of bird behaviour. 

Chris McCormack
Chris recently graduated from The University of Melbourne with a Master's of Science in Zoology. He is the current Managing Director of Wild Melbourne and pursues his interests in science and natural history through the mediums of film, photography and written communication. 

You can find him on Twitter @Chris_M_McC



Banner image courtesy of Chris McCormack