Science Book a Day Interviews Bernd Heinrich


Special thanks to Bernd Heinrich for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds

Bernd Heinrich, Ph.D, is a professor emeritus in the biology department at the University of Vermont and is the author of a number of books about nature writing, behavior, biology, ecology, and evolution.

#1 – What began your fascination with ravens?

I had crows as free-living pets when I was a boy, and so was early on ‘taken” by their personality. Ravens  are the ultimate crow. And when i was attracted by a bunch of them making a racket I had to go see what they were up to. I found them feeding on the remains of a moose carcass that was pretty well hidden by brush (by the poacher). Ravens there (where I am still, in the woods of Maine) were not common. How did they ALL find it? I suspected most had not found it, but “found” it the same way I did- recruited by the noise. So, the finder not staying silent didn’t make sense in terms of what the theory that I knew predicted. Did they recruit? It didn’t make sense, because ravens are territorial. In any case I knew there was an interesting story here, if it could be figured out. And so I started with small experiments, which got more and more surprising results, and they got to be downright exciting and mysterious to me, with ever-more interesting discoveries revealed.

#2 – How do you think our thinking of animal cognition has changed? Especially about birds? Is the term ‘bird-brained’ still relevant?

There has been a huge change in our ideas of animal cognition, especially of birds. No, ‘bird-brained’ is no longer relevant. For that matter ‘mammal-brained’ is not and never was relevant, either, so it never was relevant.

#3 – Many of the reviews of your book highlight you as a writer to be ‘enthusiastic’, ‘joyful’ and ‘light-hearted’. What is your philosophy about writing about Natural History?

I don’t have any conscious philosophy about writing Natural History. Actually, it’s science, in that I don’t write unless I think I have something original to say.  I explore and discover, and write Natural History, the scientific context of the new stuff that I write about. I do the research because it is fun. It is exciting. As they say, truth is beauty, and if I can capture it, then it rings.

#4 – Your book came out 14 years ago. What has the response been to the book?

I presume you mean “Mind of the Raven?” I forget the dates, “Ravens in Winter” came first, which is I think a much better book because it has a specific Story- the solving of the puzzle. The responses to both books have been very positive, but those to the first have been “raving” (pardon the pun). I think that one was not read as much, though, because I put a lot of my data in graph form into the book, which may have turned people away because it seemed as though it was all technical; it was not, but I needed to establish what it was based on, for those who wanted to see the actual basis of the facts on which the story is based,

#5 – Are you writing anything at the moment you can tell us about?

For the last several years i worked on the idea of “Home” in animal biology, the finding, making and mysteries of leaving and returning to it. I cover the animal spectrum, and in the end compare  the huge implications it has had for human biology, and culture. I had a draft a couple of years a go, and just finished it last month. It will be out first week in April. In the meantime, I have also been working on a book on birds. It will be a collection of individual stories of birds I have known, where I saw interesting questions that were fun to try to answer. It is bird-watching, but for a purpose, of mostly common birds that almost anyone can see routinely, all seen in the context of their natural history, just like that of seeing the raven crowd at a moose carcass and wondering about it. But in this case, without the 25 years devoted to each. So they mostly start with wonder, and just get deeper into it.

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