Review of ‘Mind of the Raven’

Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds
Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds Amazon

Mind of the Raven
Bernd Heinrich
Cliff Street Books/HarperCollins

Bernd Heinrich dedicates his most recent book to "Matt, Munster, Goliath, Whitefeather, Fuzz, Houdi, and Hook," his favorite ravens. Heinrich, an internationally known biologist, also snapped a photograph for Mind of the Raven's preface, showing his infant son, Eliot, snoozing in egalitarian proximity to six raven hatchlings. It is captioned: "My last batch of youngsters, including Red, Blue, Yellow, White, Orange, Green, and Eliot." By the final chapter, we are unsurprised when Heinrich describes the captive ravens that he studies not as his "subjects" but as "interesting friends."

Heinrich is analytically objective in his research, the quintessential scientist. But his experiments can be as improvisational as jazz. Once, the faint rustle of his trousers in a blind sent feeding ravens flapping away in terror, leaving the carcass to their much smaller blue jay cousins. "Just for a test," writes Heinrich, "I loudly whistled ‘Oh, Susanna' and athletically jumped around in the blind." The blue jays — unlike the sissy ravens — ignored him.

In November 1997, this magazine reported on Heinrich's unusual upbringing (raised in a German forest, later on a Maine farm), his studies of bumblebees and insect thermodynamics, and his abrupt mid-career switch. "I have lived and breathed ravens since a date I will remember: October 29, 1984," Heinrich writes. That was when he noticed a raven — ordinarily solitary — yelling to attract other ravens to share a carcass it had found. After months of spying from treetops (the possibility of falling is an ornithological occupational hazard), he discovered that youthful ravens recruit others to a carcass so they will outnumber older, mated pairs, who would otherwise drive them away. That prompted him to undertake a long-term study of raven cognition. This book reports his latest findings.

Ravens, he has concluded, are individuals, and aware. It is probably instinctive for a raven to exhibit high status by erecting feather "ears" and flaring out its leg feathers, as if wearing baggy pants, in the fashion of today's youth. But Merlin, a pet raven Heinrich observed in California, had tiffs with his owner, Duane. If Duane, upon coming home from work, neglected their greeting ceremony, Merlin would sulk. Once Heinrich saw Merlin listen raptly for two hours as Duane and another man played rock music on guitars.

We also meet Jakob, a German physician's bossy pet raven. "'The raven always wins,' the Herr Doktor told me," writes Heinrich. Heinrich knew from Jakob's mouth lining — black rather than immature pink — that he was the household's alpha, the dominant one.

"Klaus told me that whenever he gets mail, Jakob demands his fair portion of it," says Heinrich, adding that it is Jakob's pleasure to shred junk mail into confetti. Jakob also insists on being given, for his destructive pleasure, cardboard boxes and mail-order catalogs. Finishing them off, Jakob gives Heinrich a mighty peck on the thigh. "I was told he wanted the ballpoint pen with which I was taking notes," he reports, informing us that he quickly surrendered the pen.

Heinrich theorizes that ravens coevolved with wolves, and with early human hunters. To survive among such dangerous, wily predators, they had to become intelligent, too. Their keen curiosity evolved as a way to find food. It explains, Heinrich says, why ravens are so attracted to foreign objects such as baubles.

Heinrich has determined that ravens crave potato chips, fear ostrich eggs, befriend some ravens and detest others, and fall in love. He has found that ravens enjoy puckishly pulling the tails of hawks, as well as engaging in such games as hanging by one foot, shredding a beer can, stuffing tennis balls into tubes, "king of the bathtub," and drop-the-rock-on-the-dog.

Testing how his tame ravens identify people, Heinrich discovered they flew off in fear when he wore a hideous Halloween mask. If he wore familiar clothes, however, they did not mind if he approached them "faceless," a knitted green stocking cap pulled down to his chin. "On the other hand," he writes, "when I came dressed up in a bear suit they were quite alarmed, especially when I did the 'bear walk' on all fours." He tried exchanging clothes with a neighbor lady, with mixed results. A black mask and wig spooked them. Crossing his eyes and rolling them up troubled the ravens not at all. Dark sunglasses were OK. So was limping. But they definitely feared hopping on one leg. How about a kimono? He writes: "After my thirteenth approach in the kimono, they again allowed me to get next to them."

What can you make of a bird that dares to pull the tails of wild wolves, yet flees in terror from a pile of Cheerios? Heinrich says: "I have come to touch the world and the travails of a totally different yet kindred being that makes me feel less alone."

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