An Inconclusive, Narrow Look at Ravens

Author: Bernd Heinrich

When I was a child, I was addicted to nature and wildlife shows. Even though I was generally hyperactive, I could sit still for an hour or more and watch a program about ants, or birds, or big cats without once moving my eyes, which astonished (and probably relieved) my parents. As I’ve grown older, my love for nature and animals has remained. When I saw a book review for Bern Heinrich’s Mind of the Raven a good many years ago, I just had to have it. I bought the book, set it on my shelf to-read-immediately, and promptly got distracted by several other hundred books.

And now, finally, after a photo safari trip and a refreshed desire to deep dive into my old loves of nature and animals, I did a serious dig through my teetering piles of books and dug this book out. Finally, after years (ok, maybe a decade) of anticipation, it was time.

I have never been so bored. I started reading this book in October of 2022. Finally, in summer of 2023 the slog is complete.

Ostensibly, this bestseller is Heinrich’s story of his scientific work with ravens to understand the degree of their intelligence. Heinrich is a naturalist who apparently wrote a previous raven book and is continuing to set up experiments with both domestic raised and wild ravens. Whether climbing up a tree in the dead of winter to count eggs, dumping roadkill to watch feeding habits, or invent

ing games for his ravens, the book blurb promises that alongside Heinrich we will learn all about these intelligent birds.

Instead, what happens is a tedious diary style collection of hundreds of pages where Heinrich describes repetitive tests on his various birds yet refuses to draw any conclusions. This is because Heinrich appears as more of a hobbyist who, in his free times, likes to study his birds. He never has enough data, enough people, and enough birds to draw real conclusions, and so after hundreds of pages we’ve gone through a lot of utterly mind-numbing experiments (and no, none of them are exciting) to come out just where we were in the beginning: ravens are smart but cautious, some are smarter than others, they’re cool birds. The end.

There really isn’t more to say. Unless you like reading about roadkill and how ravens like to gather on corpses but still carefully watch for predators, then you are in for a repetitive, stultifying read with no actual conclusions and pretty dull, pragmatic, journal entry style writing that a scientist conducting a similar experiment would love, but an audience wanting to learn about ravens will find unnecessarily long-winded.

The fact that these birds are also in an aviary, in a manufactured world, makes it impossible to really talk about the life of actual ravens in the wild. Unlike nature shows, we don’t come away with a sense of the everyday here, unless it is Heinrich’s day-to-day trials and tribulations. We don’t really know ravens in the end. We just have a collection of facts, none of which are that interesting, and all of which are repeated and bracketed by statements that none of this is proven anyway.

While I still LOVE nature shows and nature, I won’t return to Heinrich’s particular style of writing about it. Indeed, I think I’ll stay away from nonfiction nature books for awhile and just get my fix from PBS. Not recommend.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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