by Bernd Heinrich
Publication Date: June 1, 2016
Genre: Natural Science, Non-fiction
Publisher: Tantor Media
Bernd 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, at once lyrical and scientific.
I don’t know what to think about this book. Would I have liked it more if I’d read the print version instead of listening to the audio? I don’t know, but I suspect … maybe.
Heinrich is a published scientist who studied ravens, so the book is pure behavioural science, no deviations, no asides; all very on-point and full of pure observational research and field studies. I have no complaints about this in theory – it was all very interesting and I can’t remember ever thinking it was getting dull or monotonous. Except that the narrator came very close to making it sound very dull and monotonous. This is why I suspect I’d have liked it more if I’d read it, or if there had a been a different narrator. Norman Dietz was competent; maybe even more than competent, as his delivery tried to be lively and was never wooden. But it was also obvious that he’s an older man, whose voice was often gravely and always a bit breathy, and in spite of his obvious efforts to bring the text alive, his voice still gave the narration a slight monotone that was hard to get past.
If I have any complaint about the content itself, it’s only that as a scientist, Heinrich is a bit cold-blooded. While it’s obvious he thoroughly enjoys his ravens and has no problem admitting to often having favorites, his objectivity and efforts to not anthropomorphise means that the ravens’ personalities never really come through. He doesn’t treat them as pets and they are, for the most part, semi-wild, but still, as someone who anthropomorphises everything, I’d have liked to have a better sense of they were as individuals.
I also struggled quite a bit at times with what Heinrich was willing to do in the name of science. While he always fed the ravens using roadkills (apparently ‘fresh’ is as relative a term to a raven as it is to vultures), there were a few studies he did where he blithely sacrificed untold numbers of animals to the ravens – while still alive – just to see how the ravens would react, and in one study he introduced a wild female raven to a tightly knit group of 4 ravens who had grown up together to see how they’d react, which wasn’t a positive experience for the poor caught raven. After a couple of days of witnessing her ostracism, Heinrich went out of town for a day and came back to find her dead from being basically pecked to death. He seemed surprised, but not remorseful, and the whole thing left a sour taste, as I’d have no problem arguing that that little experiment was not only unethical, but valueless from a scientific viewpoint.
Mostly, however, the information was interesting, if a little dated (most of his studies were done in the 90’s).