Thursday, January 22, 2009

Book Review: Ravens in Winter by Bernd Heinrich

Ravens in Winter, written and illustrated by Bernd Heinrich (NY: Summit Books, 1989)

I just finished a great book about ravens and Nevermore will I look at these intelligent birds in the same light again. The author is a Professor of Zoology at the University of Vermont and has written other books about insects, owls, marathon running and ecology.

The book provides a great look at the social behavior of ravens and other birds, bears and creatures of the winter forest in New England, as well as an interesting glimpse into Heinrich's style of scientific observation. He displays his marathon training during the hardcore camping and activities of his first several winters of raven research. He is an Iron Man that sleeps in an unheated cabin during below zero weather, drives hundreds of miles through blizzards, gets up before dawn to shimmy up swaying pine trees to await his feathered research subjects and nonchalantly slices off pieces of raven-ravaged moose butt for supper. A more rugged scientist seems hard to imagine.

The author is dogged in his research and spends monotonous hours in his outdoor blinds watching for ravens to come to the thousands of pounds of slaughterhouse guts and roadkill carcasses he drags uphill on his weekend raven research sessions. He is equally disciplined in avoiding inferences from random observations and reading interpretations into one-time events. He attributes this to a single-minded avoidance of advancing theories without multiple evidence:

When I was very young and didn't "see" what seemed obvious to adults, I often thought I was stupid and unsuited for science. Now I sometimes wonder if that is why I make progress. The ability to invent interconnections is no advantage where the discovery of truth is an objective.

He has a somewhat dry writing style, but his heroics make for interesting reading and he certainly has a sense of humor about his unorthodox research methods. He drives through Maine during hunting season with a dead goat strapped to his hood noting that the beast, which is the same size and coloring as a deer doe, looks "good enough to tag". He enlists volunteer help in capturing and banding razor-beaked test by advertising free beer and a sheep roast at a "Raven Roundup" party.

You may not want to party with Dr. Heinrich but you have to admire his patience and determination and this book was an excellent start to my Science Books Challenge, where I intead to read six books about science in 2009 to expand my selection of reading matter and the content of my gray matter.


Roberta said...

I recently read that shortly after Poe wrote The Raven, kids would follow in the street shouting, "Nevermore! Nevermore!" It kinda made me laugh.

The Holistic Knitter said...

I don't see many ravens - but I love watching the Jackdaws that visit our garden - very intelligent and crafty birds.
This books sounds good. Thanks for the review ;0)

Bill said...

I'm reading the book right now.I was curious to see if anyone,anywhere had written about it.It's great.The mix of scientific method,and humor, makes it more than entertaining,also enlightening.I look forward to being out in the woods,and seeing ravens doing what they do,now with some new appreciation of how unique they are.