I first heard about Bernd Heinrich when my husband spent our lake vacation engrossed in one of the biologist’s books about ravens. It seemed to me like a strange choice for summer lounge reading but soon I was mesmerized hearing stories second-hand about Heinrich’s research methods and observations. Heinrich went to crazy lengths to study the Rhodes scholars in the avian family: building blinds in the woods; hours upon hours of waiting and watching in sub-zero temperatures in the Maine forests; climbing very high trees to peer inside a raven nest to see what a mom was feeding her babies. He came up with intricate ways to test raven intelligence. For one, he tied some meat to the end of a string and tied the string to a tree branch so that the meat dangled in mid-air. Other birds will flap their wings like crazy trying to stay in place to eat the meat. They soon fail. But the raven, Heinrich discovered, figured out how to hoist the meat up with his beak, using his claw to secure the string a few inches at a time. Genius. He also noted that ravens figured out how to carry multiple donuts in one trip (standing a donut upright in the hole of a second). And then there’s this: the ravens’ preferred food — over road kill or filet mignon or even those donuts? Doritos. Heinrich is very excited about his work and his lyrical writing reflects that. He made the daily lives of ravens incredibly gripping, fascinating and memorable. And now he’s done the same with his new book, Summer World: A Season of Bounty. This time, Heinrich focuses on the animal kingdom that comes alive in our backyards once the weather starts getting warm. His stories about wasps and ants and caterpillars and frogs make me feel like the least observant person on the planet.
“My observations of nature from our front porch soon led to other, even more startling surprises. You may have guessed it – a few days later, as we were again sitting on the front porch drinking our usual after-supper glass of red wine in the gathering dusk, I thought I saw a light-colored piece of straw about half a foot long “flying” horizontally and then hovering in midair. That caught my attention – I looked closer and saw a black wasp that seemed identical in form to a mud dauber, and it was carrying an object. I jumped up in my excitement, and the wasp was spooked and flew off. The proof eluded me, but it dropped its “prey” onto the porch. I picked it up – definitely a long piece of dry grass! Expecting the wasp to return, I waited. After about twenty minutes it did return, carrying another piece of grass. This time I was ready with an insect catcher net.”
- Bernd Heinrich from Summer World: A Season of Bounty
Also on today’s show, Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds.
When Phoebe Snetsinger died in 1999, she had 8,389 birds on her “life list.” At the time, no other birder in the world had ever topped 8,000. I have about 12 on my “life list” and half of those I spotted at the Cornell Ornithology Lab. I think that’s cheating. Olivia Gentile’s story about Snetsinger is far from a story about a sweet bird-loving lady with binoculars around her neck and Keds on her feet. It’s more like Revolutionary Road for the birding set. After a cancer scare, Snetsinger got so obsessed with her “life list” that she neglected the rest of her life, namely a husband and four kids back home. She missed a daughter’s wedding because the date interfered with a birding trip. This is Gentile’s first book and the website that goes along with it is impressive: www.oliviagentile.com