This book was originally published in 1999, and there doesn’t appear to have been the groundswell of interest in ravens that, say, Dr. Jane Goodall’s work starting in the Sixties inspired for chimpanzees. Which is lamentable. Chimps may be our closest genetic relatives, but few of us ever have direct encounters with them. In contrast, most of us see corvids (the family that includes crows, jays, magpies and, of course, ravens) every day, so we have a much better opportunity of observing their behavior. And it doesn’t take too much observation to discern that they’re amazingly intelligent. (For astonishing examples of crow intelligence and tool making, see the David Attenborough clips here and here.)
From a purely physiological standpoint, that that intelligence shouldn’t come as too big a surprise. In general, the bigger the brain, the more it can interpret. The size of brain in most animals correlates with their overall body size, but some animals have brains bigger than predicted–humans and dolphins, for two examples, and corvids for another. In fact, ravens have the biggest brain-to-body size of any bird.
In similar methodology to leading primatologists such as Frans de Waal, Mr. Heinrich observes his studies both in a closed environment (an aviary on the author’s farm in Maine) and “wild” in the surrounding area. This is a personal as well as scientific book. Heinrich names some of “his” ravens, for example. He does this in part to tease out the intricacies of raven society and because he loves his birds. The prime directive here, however, is to present the observations, employ rigid experimental procedures and avoid anthropomorphism. That said, much of the behavior is simply impossible to interpret as anything other than “un-bird-like.” These animals cooperate, recognize individuals (including humans), plan ahead and even murder.
Heinrich advances our knowledge of ravens in a way that tells us much about ourselves. A terrific read.