February 22, 2012

Raven Ranting...

Last week I had the chance to see one of my favorite authors give a talk about his behavioral ecology work with ravens.  Bernd Heinrich has written loads of books about the natural world and someday I will have read them all.  A fellow New Englander, he splits his time between Vermont and Maine so these states often provide the backdrop for his stories.  He's studied and written about everything from bees, to birds, to bugs.  He writes with passion, knowledge, and humility about his experiences with wildlife and the world out of doors, connecting the scientific world to the public.  He speaks the same way.  

A small-framed and rather fit man who must be approaching his 70's, Bernd Heinrich was humorous and insightful.  He used old-fashioned slides from a projector which I found charming.  It was a delight to see the man's passion as he spoke about the years he spent experimenting with the behavior of ravens.  He has trapped, tagged, followed and/or observed hundreds of ravens over the course of his studies.  He has documented roosts acting as information centers where ravens share information on where to find food.  He described his Maine ravens as being shy, wary, sensitive, curious, and intelligent.  My favorite was his repeated references to anecdotal evidence, which happens to be one of the best parts of being a wildlifer.  Sure, hardcore, statistically analyzed data are the juicy meat of any scientific study, but it's recalling the anecdotal evidence that lights up researchers faces and often sparks the initial questions that lead to good research.  He spoke of witnessing raven interactions and behavior that can only be described as play.  Of hearing vocalizations from mated pairs in captivity, sounds that could only be described as affectionate.  It's these stories and experiences that season the juicy data meat for me.  More of his enthralling raven tales can be read in these two great books...get them, read them, love them!

As a generally anti-social loner birder, I always learn something about humans when I venture out of my shell into the populous.  What surprised me that night was the number of gray haired, older yuppie-type folks in the audience.  I guess I was expecting a bunch of younger people or something.  I got a kick out of the audience's clearly disgusted response as he described collecting roadkill, and hauling cow, moose and deer carcasses out to raven study sites - and much to my delight, showed many pictures of ravens on carcasses as well.  The best were the photos of squirrel skins that his ravens had turned inside-out to get to the meat because their bills couldn't puncture the hide effectively.  I heard more than one 'ewww' from the back.  Maybe these people were expecting to hear about the spiritual, touchy-feely side of ravens, not the hardcore rigors of science and wildlife biology.  Ha!

After the talk there was a pretty long question-and-answer period where some good questions were asked.  Sadly, a few folks appeared to just want to sound intelligent in their questions.  I mean really people, we came here to hear about his experiences, not to grill him on the natural history facts about a species that you could easily find out yourself.  I mean, if you know what extra-pair copulation is, then you probably know of a source to look it up for ravens, right?!  I found his answers of "I'm not sure" to this type of question highly satisfying.  The really comical part - and here my raven rant begins in earnest - was the line of people that queued up to have him sign stacks and stacks of books afterward.  Geez Louise, this was not a book signing but I'm pretty sure some folks came with the sole purpose of getting their beat-up paperbacks signed by the author.  I'm sure he goes through it all the time but I felt a bit embarrassed by the whole scene.  But not too embarrassed to approach him quickly after the throng had cleared to give him some Burly Bird stickers and thank him for all the hours of endless reading entertainment.  Yes, I'm kicking myself for only having the artwork for the Common Raven Burly Bird and not the actual stickers...

Seeing his face light up and smile when he saw the bird stickers goes down on my tiny list of 'Encounters with Famous People'.  Right next to Willie Nelson touching my hand as he signed my ticket stub at Billy Bob's in Texas, which I should add is the largest Honky Tonk in the world.  I guess I should be embarrassed for myself, but a Willie Nelson concert seems more likely a place for that kind of fan behavior.  And besides, the lady ahead of me that night had Willie autograph her bra, so I didn't feel too bad.  Yes Bernd Heinrich, you are on my list with Willie Nelson and probably lucky that nobody wanted their undergarments autographed that night...

Now to design a behavioral ecology study on my resident Glaucomys, secure grant funding, and create/complete a Master's on winter roost behavior of flying squirrels in Maine... 



  1. This was thoroughly enjoyable to read. It sounds like a great talk, the sort of thing I really should try to attend more often. I often muse about different birder demographics as well, and the different attitudes that they bring, for better or worse, to the table.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. I wanted to go. I had the honor of meeting him a long time ago. Just finished "Dog Days, Raven Nights" by John Marzluff who was his research assistants, and is about the raven research at Bernd's place.

    And yes, I have most of his books.

  3. Ha, love this... Awesome that you gave him some stickers (and refrained from getting your bra autographed). I agree that the anecdotes are the most fun parts of his writing.. I really need to read something else by him, didn't realize he had written so much.

  4. Great post. I've been a big fan of Mr.Heinrich for a long time. I did see him speak once, the same people that you witnessed were at that talk also. Bernd groupies, the worst kind.