Re: Mind of the Raven

Bernd Heinrich’s first book about ravens, Ravens in Winter, was less about ravens than about how he and his students learned about ravens. Think long hours of shivering in an unheated cabin watching ravens feed on roadkill. In Mind of the Raven, he decides to get up close and personal by raising young ravens, which yields a treasure trove of stories.

As the young birds grow up, he finds that they are afraid of things that confound their expectations. For example, he offered them a dead shrew attached to a string. When he pulled on the string to make it move, they freaked out. A few days later, he came back and offered other toys, shiny nickels, his keys, but when he pulled out a string, they fled in terror. The book points out that fear of the unknown implies that they have a “known.” Maybe even a mind.

They also play. Hanging upside down seems to be a favorite. Likewise splashing about in water and calling that a bath, and sliding down snowy slopes. Wild ravens have been seen flying upside down, executing barrel rolls, or making showy displays when coming in to a roost. They often pull the tails of competitors, like dogs, wolves, and eagles.

In Yosemite and Alaska, he observes ravens leading wolves or human hunters to prey so the ravens can feed on the kills. One of Heinrich’s students, John M. Marzluff expands on the association of human, dog/wolf, and raven in In the Company of Crows and Ravens. This book also discuss raven intelligence, with several examples of tool-using.

The closest to tool-using in Mind of the Raven came when Heinrich tries hanging food on a string as an intelligence test. Most ravens were quick to pull up the string to get at the food. Moreover, they knew not to try to fly away with it. This seems clever, but the really intriguing stories involve social behavior. Young ravens must be taught by their parents what’s good to eat. They’re very sneaky about caching food when they know they’re being watched. The most unsettling story regards a wild raven that Heinrich tried to introduce to the existing group. They refused to let her eat with them, and when she stole their caches, they evidently ganged up and executed her. When you finish the book, you too have met ravens as real characters, with both light and dark sides to their hearts.