Book: Ravens in Winter

One of my goals is to read more nature and science books, and I particularly love birds, so when I found Ravens in Winter by Bernd Heinrich at a library book sale, I couldn’t pass it up. I knew that more research had already been done on ravens because I had seen an interesting documentary about them. (This book was published in 1989.) But since I still don’t know that much about ravens, I knew I could enjoy the book anyway. (The latest news is that scientists have figured out that ravens can plan ahead for the future.)

This is the first science book I’ve ever read. That is, it’s about one scientist’s ongoing study of a subject and what he learned through his observations and experiments. (He had help from graduate students too.) What I loved about the book is that it perfectly illustrates the scientific method. Heinrich had observed ravens on some land his family owned in Maine. They seemed to be sharing their food and calling other ravens to join them. From this observation, he formed a question, or hypothesis, in his head. Did ravens recruit other ravens when they found food? Most animals do not share their food with others, so what advantage did this give them? Heinrich took a sabbatical from his job as a biologist at the University of Vermont to try to find out the answer.

The study ended up taking four years, and he did most of his work whenever he had some time off during the extremely cold, Maine winters. While I read about his adventures in the subzero temperatures, sleeping in a non-insulated and non-heated cabin, carrying heavy carcasses to places in order to attract the birds, climbing to dangerous heights in the trees to get a better view, I quickly decided that I would never have been a good wildlife biologist.

But I’m glad there are other people crazy enough to go to extremes to observe ravens because he found out some amazing facts about them, and his descriptions of their behavior were fascinating. While reading the book, I felt like a detective, sitting with him out in the woods, spying on these creatures, trying to figure out what all their odd behavior meant. Take this, for example:

NOVEMBER 27. I’m awakened to a rosy red dawn under a crystal clear sky with temperatures at 10 degrees F.

At 6:38 A.M. a raven flies over, then a second one. The pair has come–the Hills Ponders. They quork a few times during their apparent morning inspection for intruders and return down the valley to the pond. For the next three hours I see only the ever-present blue jays. They have not made a sound all morning on their frequent trips to the pile of new bait.

At 9:45 I suddenly see several ravens. I cannot count them because in the next half hour they circle over only briefly, disappear behind the trees, return, circle some more, and disappear again in to the forest. One flies to a tree where another has landed, and the first leaves; the second flies on to another perched bird, and that one leaves also. Two circle the bait together. I hear one set of deep quorks and one set of knocking sounds. There are no juvenile yells and no trills.

The chapters in the book alternate between a diary of his observations and experiments and also the research he did on previous scientist’s observations about ravens around the world. He also writes about observations from people who are not scientists, and though their observations can be helpful, he explains that it’s important for a scientist to remain subjective and not assume that certain behavior equals human behavior.

I was joking, a little, when I called him crazy. I can clearly see how appealing it would be to spend so much time out in the wild — sometimes alone and sometimes collaborating with others. You can get the sense of how he feels about about his work in the following passage:

FEBRUARY 5. The days are getting longer, but it is still deep winter. Last night, the northern lights were flickering across the sky. Tonight the sky is lightly veiled in clouds, and the quarter moon has a halo around it. It does not shed much light as I snowshoe up with my gear. I have to make three more trips, each time carrying about seventy-five pounds of frozen meat in a burlap bag slung over my shoulder. All of this is unpaid volunteer work, of course. It is fun. What I do will never have any major significance in the scheme of things. So it had better be fun.

Finally, near midnight, I’m done with my exertions and gratefully crawl into a cool but comfortable bed. Alone–unfortunately. A coyote barks from Gammon Ridge. It sounds like the dog next door. But out here it seems wild and exotic, elemental and beautiful. I am paid many times over for my efforts. But the same things I experience would not be rewards at all if it were not for the efforts I’ve invested.

Heinrich had to conduct many experiments, but he did find out that juvenile ravens will recruit other ravens to a food source, if it is located in the territory of an adult pair. This way, the adults cannot chase them off as easily. But that’s a very simplified explanation, and there is much more to glean from his data. These birds are very clever and deserve our respect. I encourage you to read the book, if you have any interest in science or birds.

Note: A high school student interested in science may enjoy this book, but younger kids would probably think it was boring.

Heinrich has written many books, and I see he has other books about ravens too. Have you read any of his books? Which do you recommend the most?

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