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He who quoteth the raven

By Alexandra RavinetSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 12, 1999


In the modern scientific community, where scientists specialize in one area and stay in it for the rest of their lives, Bernd Heinrich could almost be considered an endangered species.

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Dr. Heinrich is intellectually omnivorous. His interests range from sound forest management to insect thermoregulation.

But that's only the beginning for this energetic field scientist and prolific writer whose research spans both microscopic and macroscopic worlds. For the past 15 years, Heinrich says he has "lived and breathed ravens." His latest book, "Mind of the Raven," published this spring, is an up-close-and-personal look into the world of these mysterious birds.

The largest and more urbane members of the crow family, ravens have accompanied humans from prehistoric times. In many native myths the raven is a creator - he is mankind's protector and sometimes savior, bringing light and fire to the early people.

Often associated with mischief and thievery, people believed that ravens warned of imminent avalanches and other dangers. In Norse mythology, the god Odin held two oracular ravens named Hugin (thought) and Munin (memory) who kept him informed of all that went on in the world with their

whispers. The Arabs call the raven Abu Zajir, which means the Father of Omens.

To Heinrich, ravens are unique, making it difficult to extract meaning from their behavior in the wild. "I have often been startled by their enigmatic and seemingly contradictory responses," he writes in "Mind of the Raven."

"But the poetry of biology resides hidden in opposing tensions, and the often arduous fun comes from trying to reveal it. Ultimately, knowing all that goes on in their brains is, like infinity, an unreachable destination. The interesting part is the journey."

In "Mind of the Raven," readers can follow his footsteps on this journey. A natural storyteller, Heinrich entertainingly explains each field study in great detail and narrates his thought processes, usually triggered by something the ravens do, that lead him to devise different experiments.

Heinrich, a behavioral ecologist who started off in cellular biology, studying protozoa, believes that to understand animals it is important to study them both at the cellular and physiological level as well as the behavioral and social level.

"People should judge an animal not by its relationship with humans but by its own right, its own intrinsic value," he says. "A lot of people want to study ravens for their intelligence. But why should we study them for a characteristic found in humans. Is that the only way we can relate to and study animals?"

As an example of one of the most remarkable things he has ever seen a raven do, he mentions the case of a raven that, rather than pecking little chips out of a big hunk of suet, as most birds do, "sliced" off a hunk that he could fly off with. He carved out a groove with dozens of pecks aligned until he got the big chunk. "That's planning, and postponing immediate gratification to achieve greater gratification later," he says.

Most of Heinrich's raven research focuses on food as the experimental variable. In his "lab" in the woods Heinrich hauls calf carcasses into clearings, waits in the bitter cold and watches the ravens responses.

"You can't get away from food," he says. "It's centrally related to their biology and it's about the only leverage you have. "Mate bonding is about the only behavior that's not related to food, but it's very hard to manipulate."

Underlying behavioral biology is the question of how much of experimental research on animal behavior is influenced by human presence and cues.