Renowned raven researcher
By NED ROZELL
May 06, 2009
Some people are great runners. Some people write good books.
Some follow their curiosity to figure out something no one else
Bernd Heinrich is all of the above. The University of Vermont
professor, bestselling author, and record-setting ultra marathoner
traveled to Fairbanks recently at the invitation of an old friend,
George Happ of the Institute of Arctic Biology.
Bernd Heinrich is a
bestselling author and raven expert. He traveled to Fairbanks
recently and provided a lecture at the University of Alaska Fairbanks
Photo by Ned Rozell.
Bernd Heinrich has
written several books on ravens and has studied the birds for
decades in the Maine woods.
Photo courtesy the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
While here, Heinrich set up
a tray of slides and spoke about one of his favorite subjects,
ravens, to an audience that had just endured a long winter elbow
to wingtip with the black birds.
"Coming to Alaska and
talking about ravens is like hauling coal to Newcastle,"
Heinrich, 67, wore a flannel
shirt and running shoes, and had the light-footed-yet-rugged
appearance of someone who could run loops on a track until he
had completed 100 miles (which took him 12 hours and 27 minutes
in 1984). He also once won the Golden Gate Marathon in San Francisco,
and was that same year the top Men's Masters (40 and older) finisher
out of thousands at the Boston Marathon.
His editors at large publishing houses might not be aware of
his running prowess, but they know of his books: "Bumblebee
Economics," "Insect Thermoregulation," "In
a Patch of Fireweed," "One Man's Owl," "Ravens
in Winter," "An Owl in the House," "The Hot-Blooded
Insects," "A Year in the Maine Woods," "The
Thermal Warriors," "The Trees in My Forest," "Mind
of the Raven," "Racing the Antelope (Why We Run),"
"The Winter World," "The Geese of Beaver Bog,"
"The Snoring Bird," "The Summer World."
For a hint of why several of Heinrich's books have landed on
The New York Times Best Seller list, see the non-technical titles
of his scientific journal articles, such as "How do bees
shiver?" and "Do common ravens yell because they want
to attract others?"
In Fairbanks, Heinrich spoke of how yelling ravens at a moose
carcass in Maine sparked his interest in the birds. Why would
any creature shout out the location of its food supply?
He went about finding the answer to that and other raven questions
with uncommon effort. Dairy farmers donated dead cows and calves
to Heinrich, which he would use to attract ravens during his
research in the Maine woods. He then recorded calls of ravens
and played them back to them. He climbed to raven nests and inserted
pipe cleaners down the throats of new ravens to make them vomit
venison and reveal what their parents fed them. Heinrich and
his students once caught 43 ravens in one shot with a large trap,
and he once dressed in a homemade wolf costume to see how ravens
"They were even more afraid of me," Heinrich said.
He also built an "aviary" in the Maine woods in which
he held many wild ravens and learned volumes about their behavior.
From dozens of observations and experiments in the aviary, he
determined that the yell ravens emit around a food source is
"probably derived from the begging of juveniles in the nest."
It is the call of younger birds that desire food, but are still
submissive to adult birds.
Many Alaskans have noticed ravens commuting in and out of cities
and towns in the winter. They are heading to and from communal
roosts, often a remote copse of spruce trees in which the ravens
perch during the night like black Christmas ornaments. Heinrich
once performed an experiment to determine if these roosts were
information centers, where ravens would somehow relate the location
of a cow carcass, or a Dunkin Donuts' trash bin.
From his aviary, Heinrich would coax a raven into a pet carrier;
carry it into the woods to a roost he had located, and release
the bird, which would then join with the roosting birds. In 10
out of 10 cases, his raven showed up where the roosting ravens
were feeding. If he released a raven away from the roosting site,
just one out of 10 ravens would find the bonanza upon which the
wild roosting birds were feeding. Somehow the ravens were communicating,
but maybe not by talking about food. He could imagine birds following
the early risers that took off in a rush to the feeding site,
and there was the transfer of information.
"If somebody takes off eagerly in a certain direction, that's
the place to go," he said.
This column is provided
as a public service by the Geophysical Institute,
University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research
Ned Rozell [firstname.lastname@example.org] is a science writer at the institute.
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