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WHAS Book Reviews

Book Review: Mind of the Raven

By Carolyn Norred

Hiking Portland’s Forest Park Wildwood Trail with a couple of friends recently, we stopped off at the Portland Audubon center.  There we met Aristophanes, an eighteen-month-old raven who had been raised in captivity and now lived under the care of the Audubon volunteers.  Big, beautiful, and bold, he sat on his keeper’s gloved arm and pulled at the folds of her sleeve as we talked.  Each time he lightly tugged at her shirtsleeve, she used her bare finger to tap the underside of his most impressive beak, and he would quit for a moment, and then begin again.  She explained that he knew he wasn’t supposed to be doing what he was doing, but he wanted her full attention.

I had just finished enjoying Bernd Heinrich’s Mind of the Raven, (Harper, 1999) and I couldn’t help notice how delicate and vulnerable that bare finger looked beside the powerful beak. Heinrich lists some of the uses of the raven’s bill:  offense, defense, shoveling, picking, cutting, gripping, ripping, prying, crushing, holding, caressing, combing, and breaking limbs.…

The catch here, of course, is that his entire book is dedicated to his amazement at and respect for the Raven’s mind.  Somehow this Audubon volunteer, who had, by the way, also read Heinrich’s book, was comfortable in the knowledge that although Aristophanes was tugging at her shirt when he knew she wouldn’t like it, he wasn’t going to reach down and snap her finger when she tapped his bill in reprimand.  Somehow she had confidence in his ability to differentiate between bad habits that were OK and bad habits, or impulses, that were not so much.

 

The thrill of getting to observe a shining, vigorous, young adult raven at such close proximity was multiplied many-fold by having just read Mind of the Raven. Author Bernd Heinrich is professor emeritus of biology at the Univ. of Vermont, author of many other books, and a dedicated student of ravens.  This book is a lively account of his years of association with the ravens he has observed in the aviary behind his cabin in the Vermont woods, and in the wild, and includes his collection of other’s studies, both anecdotal and scientific, of these marvelous birds.

I have become skeptical that the interpretations of all ravens’ behavior can be shoehorned into the same programmed and learned responses-categories as those of bees.  Something else is involved, and I wanted to make some sense of it.” (xxi)

Heinrich’s narrative style is both analytical and anecdotal.

He addresses such issues as socialization, reproduction, communication, and intelligence as it occurs in a bird’s world.  For me, one his more fascinating studies is the ability of the raven to problem solve on an individual basis – beyond instinct.  He explains,

In effect, the fundamental capacity to develop strategy requires a capacity to visualize that which is out of sight, and that which has not yet happened but can happen.  To ravens, that which is out of sight is, as with us, also not necessarily out of mind, as can be seen even in trivial examples.”

One of my favorite examples of this capacity for individual problem solving that he gives us is an anecdote about an oil worker on the North Slope of Alaska who had been sitting and sharing his doughnuts with a local raven.  After watching the raven take the doughnuts off to cache each of them and immediately return in hopes of another, the worker decided to have a bit of fun with him and toss two doughnuts at once.  This raven was not to be frustrated.  He shortly hit upon the solution to his dilemma: he poked his bill through the hole in one doughnut and picked up the second with the end of his beak, securing both at once in a way that then enabled him to fly away to cache them both.

The topic of this book, a raven’s mind, is a puzzle probably impossible to solve, yet endlessly challenging as Heinrich, himself, admits.  The challenge for him was, “…hard but the results have been deeply satisfying…and there is no end to the mind….More important, I have come to touch the world and the travails of a totally different yet kindred being that makes me less alone”(351).

This book is a slow read, easily read in short bits.  There were times when I became overwhelmed by the details and put the book aside to let it work a bit.  Nonetheless, the style is sweet and smooth enough, that when I read a section aloud to my grandsons, Grandpa soon joined us and was also engaged with the story. It is a book written by a man who knows, and clearly loves, his subject, and it will change the way a reader looks at all birds, particularly ravens, and maybe even intelligence itself, forevermore.

Harper, 1999.

Carolyn Norred is a retired English instructor who lives in Longview, WA, and enjoys both birds and books.

Jul
29

Sat 3:00 pm - 5:00 pm

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