Book Review: The Snoring Bird by Bernd Heinrich, 2007

Review by Wm Olkowski, PhD, 2.28.11

Subtitle: My Family’s Journey Through A Century of Biology.

We got our introduction to Bernd Heinrich from another of his books: “The Mind of Raven”.  That raven book shows how a scientist thinks and performs the work of gathering evidence, so I thought this new book was worth a read.  This has turned out to be a surprising gem.  His task with the “Mind of the Raven” was to ask why a group of ravens shared a carcass, as this would be an example of altruism since the members of the sharing flock were not all related.  But that book only whetted my appetite for more about ravens and this naturalist-entomologist.  So when I saw this book with the odd title and his name I thought, hey why not.  After all, he is an entomologist and a contemporary, since he was at UC, Berkeley’s Entomology Dept. around the time when I was there.

His academic and personal career is covered in this biographical work in a most pleasing and illuminating way.  He grew up on an estate in Northwest Poland, then part of Germany. His parents told him stories about their life there that painted a Shangri-la type of existence.  His father was a naturalist from the old school,l when collecting and taxonomy was king.  He specialized in Ichneumonids, the largest family of the Hymenoptera, which are all parasitoids.  His father’s single-minded pursuit of ichneumonids took him and his family all over the world.  He would finance his trips by collecting and preparing museum specimens of birds and rodents for different museums in Europe and the US.  Then he would also collect his favorites, the ichneumonids, for himself.

When I visited the famous ichneumonid specialist Henry Townes, before his death, he told me about an uneducated man who could identify thousands of specimens to species by sight.  He must have been talking about Gerd, Bernd’s father, a most unusual, self-taught man.  This book is a historical reconstruction of that time, based on correspondence translated from German, of Bernd’s early days and his experiences with his father’s adventures.  One of the adventures was the collection of the Snoring Bird in the Celebes, a project that took two years of jungle searching.

The Heinrich family was forced to leave their estate, with food and cyanide pills, as the murderous rapping Russian Army was gobbling up much territory to satisfy Stalin’s greedy quest for power.  The story (with maps and photos) of their escape via horse drawn wagon, car, train and airplane, reads like an action-adventure story, with close escapes due to kindness and chance.  For example, in their escape to the West an America officer befriended them and told them to leave, giving them a car.  They did not understand why he would warn them. “Just trust me and leave”.  It turned out that the American knew about the deal Roosevelt and Stalin cut carving up Poland, Germany and Eastern Europe.  He warned them so they would not be trapped in the Eastern Sector.  At another point they were held up by British sentries guarding a bridge crossing the Elbe-Trave canal, the boundary between the American and British sectors.  One of the sentries was an ethnic pole who told them (they also spoke Polish) that the British were preventing refugees fleeing the Russians from crossing.  Eventually the sentries let them cross, while a few hours later it was closed to the hoards fleeing the frightful Red Army.  If not for these men the Heinrich family would have been German instead of American. The stories he tells are full of the chance coincidences of life’s randomness and how it played a major part in their lives.

The relationship between the father and son was strained by the father’s stern demeanor and his obsession with ichneumonids.  Bernd describes many such interactions, along with a great childhood of being in the woods of Germany, many tropical areas, and Maine, where the family still maintained the farm they bought, after years of struggling, picking apples and other odd jobs, including collecting museum specimens.  His father was an important naturalist in a closing age of naturalist collectors (e.g., Darwin for example).  Bernd’s education was different, and when he turned to biology he describes how he was pulled away from the naturalists’ view to the molecular zeitgeist prevalent at the time when we were in graduate school.  This is changing again, but not in a significant way.  One hopes that new identification tools and techniques would develop enough so a naturalist could actually work on larger chunks of the web of life.

Gerd Heinrich’s large ichneumonid collection resides mostly in European museums, and his thousands of bird and rodent specimens are also found in US museums.  He saved some of his Polish collections by burying them in metal boxes as he was leaving before the Russians.  Wow!!