5 December 2013

The Snoring Bird, by Bernd Heinrich

Posted by Callan Bentley

birdSome time ago, when I reviewed some books here, Thomas Hodgson left the suggestion that I might enjoy The Snoring Bird, by Bernd Heinrich. So I asked the library to order it, and they did, and as soon as it arrived, someone else checked it out. Then I got my turn, and today, when I returned it, it instantly got whisked off to another eager reader! Wow – a popular tome.

The book is a memoir / autobiography of the author, a noted wildlife ecologist, and his father, an entomologist specializing in ichneumon wasps. Heinrich’s female relatives get some mention, too, but they are clearly not his focus. His multiple marriages and children are dealt with in a matter of mere pages, while his father’s war-time travails in Europe dominate page-space. In fact, I’d guesstimate that about 3/5ths of the book are about his father, Gerd, and only 2/5ths are about the author himself. It’s a little odd that way.

I think Heinrich (the younger) is at his best when he is describing his thought processes in experimenting with animal behavior in the wild. He designs clever tests to figure out why bumblebee thoraxes are warm, for instance, and gains real insights into the biology of our nonhuman neighbors. But most of this book is not like that. It’s mostly about his family luckily getting through one harrowing World War II escape after another, or in more halcyon times, exploring the jungles of Borneo or Tanzania in search of new species, such as the titular rail.

I enjoyed the portion of the book that dealt with Heinrich’s travails and adventures growing up in rural Maine, and attending a private school, and learning the joy of running in the woods. And it was worthwhile to read how his father, who fought as a patriotic German in World War I only reluctantly served under Hitler in World War II, more out of fear than anything positive. That’s a perspective I haven’t personally explored before. But the relationship between father and son was strained and awkward, and it’s dismaying to read of that disconnect. And I found the maleness of the whole volume (with only peripheral examination of the female perspective) to be stark and off-putting.

So, all told, I didn’t love it, and would recommend Mind of the Raven over it for readers new to exploring Heinrich’s oeuvre.