Are ravens more like humans than anything else that is not?

On Books

May 23, 1999|By Michael Pakenham

Commendably without waving a single feather toward Edgar Allen Poe or professional football, Bernd Heinrich's new book on ravens combines a compelling exploration of the nature of consciousness with an unremittingly delicious jaunt in the woods. It is "Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures With Wolf-Birds" (Cliff-HarperCollins, 380 pages, $25).

Ravens have the largest brain, relative to body weight, of any bird and a vastly greater brain/body ratio than most animals. They have been the stuff of legend throughout history.

They fascinate -- no one more than Heinrich, a professor of biology at the University of Vermont. Now 59, he has "lived and breathed ravens" since 1984. Among other books that he has written was "Ravens in Winter," a precursor of this volume. His "Bumblebee Economics," received wide attention and high praise.

The common raven, of which he writes, is the largest member of the crow family -- which also includes, of course, the common American crow. The common crow is plentiful, shameless and ubiquitous, whereas the raven is fairly rare, in the Northeast anyway, and secretive.

The research on ravens was voluminous even before Heinrich began -- he cites "more than 1,400 research reports and articles in the scientific literature." He has sought to go beyond, and has devoted much of his life to that task.

He has spent thousands of hours watching ravens from blinds and other hiding places. He has "adopted" many raven chicks, trying to feed and tend them as closely as possible as natural parents would. He recruited legions of graduate students and associates to collaborate. Many of the tests he made, and behavior and response patterns he and colleagues contrived or watched, were entirely original. He took and kept elaborate notes.

The book begins with four chicks that he took from two nests in 1993, who remain characters, off and on, throughout much of the narrative, running into 1998.

If nurtured from birth, ravens can become pets, though they cannot be housebroken. Once a raven has established a bond with a human being -- "mating" -- it will stick with that person for life, returning immediately and enthusiastically even after an absence of six months or more. They are not passive: He writes of one domesticated raven consistently demanding a portion of each day's mail. It was given junk envelopes, which it shredded with the same meticulousness with which its owner read the rest.

Heinrich is an extraordinarily rigorous scientist, but he is unafraid of drawing conclusions that go beyond cold data. He examines, for example, the powerful attachments between pairs of ravens, and even between a raven and a human: "What is the reason for such attachment? I believe it resides in mutual communication. A raven is expressive, communicates emotions, intentions and expectations, and acts as though it understands you. This communication is privileged. It occurs when the individual close to the bird is trusted, has earned a trust that is not offered lightly."

Heinrich has a disciplined and direct voice, with a clean-edged vocabulary that is far from colorless. He is funny, celebrating ironies and the incomprehensible.

The book is written in 29 succinct chapters, each undertaking some aspect of the bird or the research: "Education," "Adoption," "Ravens' Fears," "Are Ravens Conscious and Emotional?"

Most of those chapters begin with a brief report on what has previously been known and end with Heinrich's conclusions. The core is a report on his own research. In those passages lies the charm of the book, for he is a grand storyteller. He reports on many meetings with other ravenphiles, some scientific and some utterly not so, naming names, giving credit, citing places.

As a woodsman myself, I can say with confidence that he makes the sensory experience of being in the wilds extraordinarily real.

Most crows are very social and band in large groups, but ravens tend toward lone pairs. They eat heavily from dead animals, but they also kill -- birds, small animals. They are known to have attacked reindeer, lambs, seal pups and other large animals.

An "ancient evolutionary history" between wolves and ravens has led to their being called "wolf birds." Wolves will kill an animal, rip open the carcass (which ravens cannot do) and eat only the choicest bits of it, then move along quickly to kill again, leaving the bulk of the flesh to ravens and other animals and birds. There is evidence that ravens locate potential kills for wolves.

Ravens behave in the same manner with polar bears, large cats and other predators -- and sometimes, famously in history and legend, with human hunters.

The book is impressively designed, the text punctuated with excellent little drawings. There is a centerpiece of valuably illustrative photographs.

Heinrich writes with an eloquence that combines confidence and awe: "Feelings of comfort with familiarity could motivate bird migrants to sustain their long arduous journeys, bringing them back over thousands of miles, year after year to the very same bush. Do these animals yearn for home as we do? We do not know what they feel. We know only what they do. We also know only some of the adaptive reasons for our feelings, which make us do what we do."

His broadest conclusion constitutes the final words of the book: "Ravens are able to manipulate mental images for solving problems. They are aware of some aspects of their private reality, seeing with their minds at least some of what they have seen with their eyes."

Conscious, intelligent and capable of emotion -- if not quite human.

Pub Date: 05/23/99

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