Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads

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#SteveReviews: Beak and Brain

For a long time, as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by the unique fauna of New Zealand. Thankfully I was given the opportunity to visit earlier this year and see some it for myself. I wish I had more time but I’m sure there will be another opportunity in the future. Like everyone else I’m familiar with the plight of kiwis and the kakapo so it’s refreshing to see a documentary with another New Zealand endemic, the kea. Beak and Brain is a 2013 documentary that takes a closer look at these large parrots as well as the crows of New Caledonia. Both species are particularly good at solving puzzles which makes them the perfect study species for cognition in animals.

In general there is some remarkable footage that is surprisingly funny at times, such as keas destroying cars at a ski resort. Who would have guessed than an Endangered parrot would enjoy taking cars to pieces? It certainly makes for interesting watching but it also highlights their intuition, curiosity and the versatility of their beaks. With the right tools and the processing power to use them properly, they’re definitely evidence that ‘bird brained’ should no longer be used as an insult for someone who is stupid or unintelligent. Whilst the documentary only focusses on two species, it draws great parallels between the two as well as discussing the conservation and threats of keas in their homeland of New Zealand.

There is a seamless blend of footage from the wild individuals and of that involving captive ones taking part in various different experiments. The narration too is quite charming, being very clear and precise. At times there is a bit too much anthropomorphism at times but that can’t be helped, given the parallels between family groups of intelligent birds and ourselves. Keas learn their skills from their parents much like we do which gives them the ability to solve challenges that they’ve never encountered before or been trained to solve. The recent implications of the more widespread intelligence in birds than previously thought may have have knock-on effects for our views of the intelligence of the ancestors of birds, dinosaurs.

It’s quite lighthearted and I can see Beak and Brain appealing to a wide audience, I’d certainly recommend it to anyone with an interest in natural history, wildlife or zoology. It’s not the familiar formula we’re used to with productions by the greats such as David Attenborough but Beak and Brain is still exciting, education and enjoyable.

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