by Bernd Heinrich
Most people who noticed a Northern Flicker busily carving a hole into the side of their log cabin would be upset. Some might even be tempted to call the exterminators. (Not that they would be able to do anything about it.) Birders would at least run out and holler “Shoo!” or worse. Not Bernd Heinrich. What may have appeared as a disaster to most folks suggested an opportunity to him. Not only did he not prevent the flicker from completing the job, he decided to cut another hole from the inside. (Using a chainsaw no less!) He then proceeded to create a space that would be accessible to the nesting birds and to himself as well.
All this makes perfect sense to someone like Heinrich. He has been studying the habits of birds and other creatures for years. Now in his 70s, he still hasn’t lost that sense of wonder and curiosity that makes him want to learn as much as possible about the natural world around him.
Take those flickers for example. By carefully observing what had become his housemates, he was able to discover quite a lot about the birds nesting habits. Counting the number of trips the parents made back and forth with food one day, he came up with 32. Stretching that over the 22 days the baby birds were nest-bound, the total came to nearly 700 feeding trips. Since there were seven baby birds in the nest, that would have represented 100 trips to rear each one. Raising flickers can be quite labor intensive!
In another chapter, Heinrich observes a Barred Owl that showed up at his cabin one winter. He got used to it perching in a birch tree overhead and would watch it from his window. There was snow on the ground and the owl dove into it and came up with a shrew. Hoping to keep the owl around, Heinrich set out a dead red squirrel. The owl would have none of it. Maybe it just didn’t care for squirrels. Or, maybe it was something else. This made the author wonder whether the owl was hunting by hearing, sensing movement, sensing heat (infrared), or sensing form. Heinrich saved a dead shrew he had found and tied a string to it. (As the author notes, “Thread is a great tool for making a dead shrew move.) Tossing the rodent, he pulled the shrew across the snow. It wasn’t long before the owl flew down and grabbed the rodent it its talons. The movement had been the determining factor in this case.
Each chapter deals with the behavior of a different bird. Another investigates the way nesting Blue Jays communicate. Then there is the author’s attempts to explain that strange dance performed by American Woodcocks. In yet another, he examines the way Common Redpolls tunnel in the snow. Chapter titles like “Hawk Tablecloths”, “Nuthatch Homemaking” and “Vireo Birth Control” entice the reader.
In the chapter on the Barred Owl, Heinrich admits that he himself goes to bed when it gets dark. After hours, he had the assistance of some students who were staying at the cabin. One of these students even took the photo of the author that appears on the dust jacket. Here and there, the author reveals some biographical details, allowing the reader to “know” him a bit. At no point is he ever boring. He brings to life the various bird species with excellent humor. (Even referring to the smallest flicker fledgling as “Pipsqueak”.)
The book is illustrated throughout by Heinrich. These drawings and watercolors probably would not qualify as fine art, but they are full of personal charm and observation. The chapters are generally short. It is easy to read one each night before turning in, as the title suggests taking One Wild Bird at a Time.