Heinrich involves us in his quest to get inside the mind of the raven. But as animals can only be spied on by getting quite close, Heinrich adopts ravens, thereby becoming a "raven father," as well as observing them in their natural habitat. He studies their daily routines, and in the process, paints a vivid picture of the ravens' world. At the heart of this book are Heinrich's love and respect for these complex and engaging creatures, and through his keen observation and analysis, we become their intimates too.
Heinrich's passion for ravens has led him around the world in his research. Mind of the Raven follows an exotic journey--from New England to Germany, and from Montana to Baffin Island in the high Arctic--offering dazzling accounts of how science works in the field, filtered through the eyes of a passionate observer of nature. Each new discovery and insight into raven behavior is thrilling to read, at once lyrical and scientific.
In a book that demonstrates the rewards of caring and careful observation of the natural world, Heinrich (Ravens in Winter, etc.), a noted biologist, Guggenheim fellow and National Book Award nominee (for Bumblebee Economics, 1979), explores the question of raven intelligence through observation, experiment and personal experience. Although he has raised many ravens through the years (beginning with a tame pair that shared his apartment at UCLA in the 1960s), Heinrich focuses much of his attention on four nestlings he adopted from the Maine woods near his home. As he describes tending to the demanding babies, chopping up roadkill, cleaning up after them and enduring their noisy calls for food, readers will marvel at how much Heinrich knows and at how much joy he derives from acquiring that knowledge. As the birds mature, Heinrich details how these and other ravens feed, nest, mate, play and establish a society with clear hierarchical levels. At its best, his writing is distinguished by infectious enthusiasm, a lighthearted style and often lyrical descriptions of the natural world. His powers of observation are impressive and his descriptionsAof how a raven puffs its feathers in a dominance display, of how a female calls for food from her mate, of the pecking order at a carcassAare formidably precise. Toward the end of the book, Heinrich addresses the question implied by the title: To what degree can ravens be said to think? His answer: "I suspect that the great gulf or discontinuity that exists between us and all other animals is... ultimately less a matter of consciousness than of culture." Illustrations.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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May 29, 2007
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Excerpt from Mind of the Raven by Bernd Heinrich
Becoming a Raven Father
The first prerequisite for studying any animal is to get and to stay close. You must be able to observe the fine details of its behavior for long periods of time without the animal seeing or feeling your presence. That's a tall order with wild ravens in northeastern America. In my part of the country, where food is sparsely distributed, ravens may range over a hundred square miles a day, and they fly away at the mere sight of a human. Ravens are shyer and more alert, and have keener vision than any other wild animal I know, making it even more difficult to watch their natural undisturbed behavior.
Given these difficulties, I felt I needed to try to obtain young and to be a surrogate parent to them. It was perhaps the only way to learn about many aspects of their intimate social behavior. Obtaining and living with young ravens has its inconveniences, not the least of which is making the hazardous ascents to get them from the nest. The trees that ravens like to nest in are not the ones I like to climb.
The last few patches of winter snow were left in the shady places under fir trees. The ice had just melted off Hills Pond, and the first warblers were back. But in Maine at the end of April 1993, still a month before the maples would leaf out, that year's baby ravens would already have a coat of black feathers. I was on my way to two different nests. I would take two young of the clutch of four to six I expected to find in each nest. I would then have to attend to every need of the young birds.
It was snowing, and the great pine tree with the first ravens' nest was swaying in the north wind coming across the lake. I wanted to run, but I held myself to a walk, trying to conserve as much energy as possible for the climb ahead. More than once before, I had been frightened when I found myself hanging on to a thick limbless pine trunk as strength ebbed from my arms. The void above the tops of the fir trees seemed to expand as my grip grew less secure.
White feces were spattered on the ground below the nest, a sign that the young were already beyond the pinfeather stage. At this nest, which I had visited often in previous years, only the adult male scolded me; the female always left when I came near. At other nests, both members of the pair may scold, both leave, or one or both remain at some distance.
After carefully putting on climbing spurs and adjusting my backpack, I put my arms around the tree and started. Go slowly, I kept telling myself, one step at a time. I tried to keep looking up, not down. I got very tired just as the solid limbs were getting closer. Fortunately, having trained over the winter to do chin-ups, I was able to sustain the effort. As I hauled myself up onto the first solid limbs, I felt elated. I had once again escaped the fate of some other ornithologists in similar situations. George Miksch Sutton fell from a cliff while climbing up to a raven nest, but was saved by falling on a ledge before hitting the bottom of the cliff. Fellow raven researcher Thomas Grunkorn once fell eighty feet out of the top of a beech, breaking his back in two places. Miraculously, he lived and did climb again (see Chapter 7). Gustav Kramer, an ornithologist studying wild pigeons, died when rocks came loose as he was climbing up to a cliff nest. I am quite frightened of cliffs, by comparison feeling almost safe with tree limbs to hang onto.
The tree was swaying mightily in the gusts, but it had not been blown over in worse gales, and it would not fall or break now. Besides, there was nothing I could do about it. So no worries.
Four fully feathered young hunkered down in a very soggy nest. It had rained steadily for the last two days, and the heavy, waterlogged nest was badly tilting because one of the supporting branches was too thin. The four young were very chunky, clumsy, and cute. When I lifted two out to put them into my knapsack, I noticed their huge bare bulging bellies. They didn't struggle or complain, and the climb back down was easy.
With four young finally resting in the bottom of the knapsack, I hiked home to put my new charges into their new nest -- a basket packed with dead grass and leaves almost all the way to the top, so that they could defecate out over the edge. I talked to them in low soft tones, and they immediately broke their silence and answered in raspy raven baby talk. They were almost feathered out, and looked at me with bright blue eyes (which would turn gray near fledging and brown by winter). They raised pinfeathery heads and opened their big pink mouths (mouth linings and tongue turn black only after one to three or more years, depending on the birds' social status).