Book Review: The Snoring Bird: My Family’s Journey Through a Century of Biology, by Bernd Heinrich
Reviewed by Stephen J. Bodio
July 15, 2009
The Snoring Bird is an epic tale of 20th-century zoology, structured like (and as enthralling as) a sprawling novel of two generations of naturalists, Bernd Heinrich and his father Gerd. Such an ambitious book needs more than a scientist’s skills, but Heinrich, author of books on everything from insect metabolism to ravens to running, has succeeded splendidly.
From a present-day visit to his “Mamushka,” living contentedly with her chickens in Maine, he casts his narrative back to an estate in West Prussia (later Poland), where his father spent an idyllic youth. From there, Gerd became a flier in the First World War, and afterwards gradually made a name as a scientific collector. His specialty became insects, especiallyIchneumons—parasitic wasps of which there are tens of thousands of species (of which Gerd eventually described more than a thousand).
His secondary interest was collecting birds. Under the patronage of Erwin Stresemann, an ornithologist credited with initiating the modern study of birds, he roamed the world, from Persia to the South Pacific, chasing specimens.
His goal in 1930, in the Celebes, is an obscure rail—Aramadopsis plateni, the “snoring bird” of the title, which was known from only one specimen. But on the last day of the two-year expedition, he hears a sound that resembles deep snoring. “My hand clamps the shaft of my shotgun . . . again it moves . . . a reddish bill? . . . The shot rips through the silence . . . Have I hit and—what is it? . . . There lies a bird, a bird with black and white stripes under the wings and with a strong, partially red bill—Aramadopsis plateni.”
The elder Heinrich wrote of the snoring rail as “the most priceless catch I have ever [hunted] or will hunt”—even though the expedition discovered six new species and three new genera. But finding rails is notoriously difficult.
As Bernd says, “They are the embodiment of the wild and inaccessible nature hidden from human senses. They are otherworldly birds, because they live where few people venture, and where those who do go seldom get to see or hear them . . . if lucky, one may know them from their voice, which is heard only at night.”
The Second World War disrupts the life of the Heinrichs. Trusted by neither German nor Pole, they flee ahead of the warring armies and end up—after a series of adventures that would make an excellent film—in the United States. Gerd is 55 and has no academic credentials, so he finds it difficult to adapt. They end up in Maine, where Bernd adapts to life as a rural New England teenager, while Gerd cuts wood, collects Ichneumons, and occasionally goes on collecting expeditions. The difference between the lives of Gerd and Bernd can sometimes make painful reading but provides a fascinating picture of zoology “maturing” from its roots in collecting and taxonomy through more (allegedly) scientific phases, and now back to nature again: taxonomy is again important, aided by such things as DNA analysis. A 1975 letter from Bernd says it well: “I have to admit I’m glad to hear you think I’m a comfort to you for carrying on a tradition in biological sciences. I am glad that I’m carrying on a tradition, rather than standing in the same place . . . you were in the original tide of exploration of the new and distant lands, and you made a worldwide reputation in taxonomy of a difficult group. . . . The wave has gone on, and I guess I’m lucky to be on the crest of it, still. ‘Traveling to far and distant lands’—I’ve probably passed through physiology, and am now at the borders of behavior and ecology and evolution.”
All this and much more—life, love, fidelity, infidelity, war, loss, gain, and humor, plus excellent illustrations. My highest recommendation!
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