There’s No Place Like Home…

Author:  Bernd Heinrich

The homing instinct cover (183x276)A green sea turtle has a brain no bigger than a walnut. Yet somehow, despite traveling thousands of miles over several years at sea, she’s able to swim back to the beach of her birth when it’s time to mate.  How does she find this one spot over millions of square miles of seemingly endless ocean?  Does she remember key landmarks?  Does she just keep track of where she’s been?  Does she have a map neurologically stamped in her brain?  Blessed with a (slightly) bigger brain, the aptly named wandering albatross does an airborne version of the same thing. How do they do it?  If such questions and natural mysteries pique your interest, I can enthusiastically recommend The Homing Instinct by my favorite scientist and nature writer, Bernd Heinrich.

A green sea turtle on the way home.

A green sea turtle on the way home.

An acclaimed expert in areas as diverse as bumble bee thermoregulation and raven cognition, Heinrich has been writing popular natural science books for the better part of three decades. Previous works, like Life Everlasting, Summer World and Ravens in Winter, have displayed a thoroughly entertaining combination of imaginative hands-on experimentation and shrewd scientific deduction.  This most recent addition to his list of works lives up to this well established tradition.

Exploring the behavioral peculiarities of numerous creatures, Heinrich tries to understand what the concept of “home” means from a biological perspective. Whether it’s a sandhill crane migrating thousands of miles to its nesting grounds in Alaska each spring, an orb-weaver spider constructing its web, a salmon swimming back to its natal stream or a deer hunting human building a cabin in the woods, each animal follows deep seated instincts that fuel their drive towards home.

A sandhill crane on the way from New Mexico to Siberia.

A sandhill crane on the way from New Mexico to Siberia.

Deciphering many mysteries, from bar-tailed godwit migration to grasshopper gregariousness, the author’s consistently astute observations make for great reading. He even performs a post-mortem on the once ubiquitous passenger pigeon, whose home was always on the move with the enormous flocks that spanned North America.  He also includes dozens of his own drawings as well as some autobiographical material, explaining why he continues to return to his home territory in the Maine woods every November.

Spanning the animal kingdom – from honey bees, ants and tent caterpillars to eels, beavers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers – The Homing Instinct is a fascinating survey of the countless different ways that one can make a home.  It also provides an intriguing look into the mind of a great scientist, still going strong well into his seventies.  Highly recommended for fans of Heinrich’s other works or for anyone who enjoys great hands-on nature writing.

— D. Driftless

sea turtle picture by Brocken Inaglory   /   crane photo by Steve Emmons

Check out our review of Life Everlasting.

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