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Thursday, August 21, 2003

Waiting for ravens

The other day I was paging through a book I haven't picked up for a while, and I was reminded how much enjoyment it gave me during graduate school. Despite my initial misgivings about the title, Ravens in Winter is not a fantasy or romance novel, but is instead about real-life ravens...in winter. Behavioral ecologist Bernd Heinrich gives a thorough introduction to corvid taxonomy, basic biology, and behavior, but the majority of the book is written as a scientific journal. For me, this latter section captures perfectly the feel of doing scientific research, both in terms of motivation and psychological impact. In short, Heinrich hopes to test a few simple questions about raven vocalization, but winds up spending nine years dragging frozen animal carcasses around the wilds of Maine in subzero temperatures and waiting silently until ravens arrive.

Although my research efforts are confined to the lab, this excerpt pretty much sums up the mood of the moment.

November 15. I'm back to give the ravens a choice. A pile of slaughterhouse offal is spread out covering a weathered old board twenty feet up in the old pear tree at the edge of the clearing below the camp. An equal amount of offal is below the tree.

My alarm clock rings at 5:30 A.M., and I vault out of bed, light the kerosene lamp, smash through the ice in the wash pan to rinse my face, and heat up a cup of coffee. It is -13 degrees Fahrenheit outside (and inside), cold for this early in winter.

By 6:00 A.M. I am in the blind, that is, in the frame of my unfinished log cabin a quarter mile below Kaflunk. I'm facing the eastern horizon, which is now bright orange. The sky is dark blue above and green to the sides, grading to dark blue-black in the west. The last stars are still visible. A flock of small finches is already twittering in excitement as they feed on the white birch catkins in the grey dawn, scattering husks onto the snow below like pepper onto a white tablecloth.

By 6:30 the tips of my toes and fingers are already numb with cold. Clouds are becoming illuminated against the eastern sky, which is turning as pink as the plastic flamingos found in many front yards in Maine.

At 6:50 the sun pops up over the ridge, sending rays onto the snow and glinting off the hoar frost on the grass. Thousands of bright flecks of light twinkle everywhere. The shadows on the snow are blue.

Slowly, imperceptibly, the play of colors in the sky shifts again and repeats in the western sky. No bird found my baits. Not all day.
I take heart that Heinrich eventually discovers what he set out to learn. I am curious, however, what his real notebook entries looked like. I mean, I also use colorful language in my notebook after a frustrating day in lab, but of a rather different variety.

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