He who quoteth the raven
WELD, MAINE — 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.
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.
"If you're interested in mechanisms of behavior, the only way to understand an animal is by experimenting," he says. "That's what an experiment is all about, manipulating things, altering them purposefully to see what effect it will have."
Heinrich's research on raven behavior also makes its way into the courses he teaches as a professor of biology at the University of Vermont.
Each year, a group of about 15 students from his winter ecology class packs up and spends a week or two in the cabin with Heinrich. "It's great. They do all the cooking and I get to kick back and relax," he says.
Among students, Heinrich is renowned for serving his famous "mice-kebabs." "These mice stories have been greatly exaggerated," he says and adds with a grin, "Little do they know that it's served only Saturdays and I only serve deer mice. It's kind of a way of keeping enrollment down."
Fortunately, culinary treats are not the main reason for inviting his students to his cabin in the woods. Heinrich explains that each student must set up a project, keep a log of observations, and follow through with it. "I try to bring them in contact with nature and hopefully get them interested in something, anything."
In a way, he offers his students a similar gateway into scientific interest as the one he had as a child. It was by spending much of his time as a child in the woods near his home in Germany, where he was born, and later as an adolescent in Maine, that he became fascinated with most things alive.
As a precocious entomologist, he developed an interest in insects when he was six years age, when he put together a collection of carabid beetles and learned all their Latin names, much to the awe of the local museum's curators, where his collection was displayed.
At the age of 10 his family moved to Weld, Maine, where he went to a Christian boarding school for destitute children. His cottage mother, as the instructors were called, was particularly ill tempered and strict. And so to escape the boarding school, he would run into the woods with his books on plants and animals and would teach himself about nature. "If it hadn't been for the woods, I would have gone crazy," he says.
Now, some 50 years later, Heinrich, grateful for having had the woods to spark his curiosity, is donating 300 acres of land that he purchased to his childhood school. "It would be a contribution to disadvantaged kids and at the same time a contribution to conservation," he says. "I want it to end up as a showcase for diversity and good forestry management and I want to get kids involved."
Including "Mind of the Raven," Heinrich has written 10 books for the scientific community and the general public. The award-winning "Bumblebee Economics," a book on insect physiology, has given him much scientific acclaim while "The Trees in My Forest," a tribute to his 300-acre Maine forest, was enthusiastically received by lay audiences.
Heinrich's research is based in the
field, in the meticulous observation that is the pillar of behavioral biology, but it is also based on passion. He says that he studies nature out of curiosity and because it's fun.
"It's like a puzzle. And any rational way of dealing with nature is based on knowledge and how things work. I started the raven project, for example, by wondering what sharing meant. I don't go out and say, 'What am I going to do to study nature so we can understand it more and so we can be more protected.' "
"I try to provide a bridge for people who don't normally have much contact with nature but who would like to. I think that's why I write a lot of popular books. It's a satisfactory experience; it opens people's eyes to nature. But it's not a conscious motive. I'm personally interested. What could be more interesting than nature?"
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society