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The Homing Instinct: Meaning and Mystery in…
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The Homing Instinct: Meaning and Mystery in Animal Migration

by Bernd Heinrich

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Finally! It took me a while to get through this, but I was distracted, between big life events and many of the other books I want to read, have started to read, or finished reading since my last post. This is the first Bernd Heinrich book for me to read; I had been wanting to read something by him for a while. At first I wasn’t sure, but I think this was a good one to start with. It is a collection of loosely related pieces. About half of the book is about the science of migration, and the other approximate half is personal memoir, pertaining to the author’s own homing instinct. The timing proved to be appropriate for me, in a symbolic way: the day I began reading, and the day I finished, I was away from home, but in between, and for over a year now I have been at home and wanting to move on. However, I love my home, and understand Heinrich’s feelings about the Maine woods he grew up in.

So many subjects are covered in this book, and maybe it tries to cover too much. As a whole, it could be more cohesive, but it is well written and any chapter is enjoyable on its own. How does he decide what to include?, I found myself wondering. His familiarity with so many organisms and the science pertaining to them serves this book well. The sketches are also a nice supplement to the text.

The bird on the cover, for example, is a bar-tailed godwit, which can fly across the Pacific Ocean non-stop! It does this after nesting in Alaska, flying to Australia or New Zealand. Flying from there to Alaska, it makes a few stops, and in these flights changes its body weight by 2-3 times. This is just one of the many profiles crammed into the book. All are fun to read. Each species is unique in its homing “instinct” and he acknowledges this. Sandhill cranes are the opener, and bees buzz among many pages. I didn’t know there were no bees in North America until the colonists brought them here in the early-mid 1600s. To give a sense of what the author’s personality might be like, he counted over 500 of one species of insect while jogging (as recorded in a journal of his in 1985). Also, later in the book he compares his own physiology to that of a bee.

The chapter “By the Sun, Stars, and Magnetic Compass” seemed more organized and flows better, though maybe I was more focused when reading it. In general I tend to enjoy books more if I can read them in short periods of time with extended “sessions”. Reading a little bit here and there (for the first time) is usually less pleasant, so that may bias my reviewing.

“Home-making in Suriname” was only loosely related to the theme of the book, but is a good stand-alone travel adventure that found its home in this text and comes away with a nice message. The setting reminded me of “The Lost Steps” by Alejo Carpentier, for better or worse, and it is exciting to read about a challenging excursion into one of the few still-pristine places. In the last chapter of the second section about how communal homes first arose, the mentioned hypothetical speculation happened around the time the expected processes were observed in real species. Perhaps this inspired him to speculate on the unpleasant topic of population control of the Homo genus.

In one of the ‘personal’ chapters at the cabin in the woods, there is a real-life Charlotte the spider. Her story is drawn largely from the author’s journal, where it is evident that he is a keen observer of his wild visitors and their behavior. This is in addition to the experiments of others – some simple, some quite clever – that spice up the book. His own backyard home experiments with Chestnut trees are a demonstration of boundaries by seed dispersal, and are a nice conservation effort. Heinrich’s relationship with his nephew is a good one, and brings a real human element to this interesting collection of natural histories. The book’s epilogue is like a short chapter, a biograph, the family’s connection to the land and to other people there. I can say that I got a few interesting facts out of this read, and at a less busy time of my life I look forward to reading more of the author’s works.

Note: this book was provided through Net Galley, and my review also appears on my blog (http://matt-stats.blogspot.com/). ( )
  MattCembrola | Nov 26, 2015 |
We're familiar with birds migrating even if we don't know exactly how they get to precise places each year. We also know that salmon can find their way back to the same rivers and lakes where they were born, and eels do that in reverse, being born in the ocean and spending their lives in rivers before returning to the ocean to spawn. But these behaviors extend to many other animals and in different ways. Some butterflies migrate, and even though they may not complete the journey, their offspring will. Grasshoppers swarm at certain times of the year, bees find their way back to the hive, and ants return to the nest. How do pigeons know where home is, or sea birds find land, or turtles migrate? And what about people? Aren't we drawn to home, if not always, at least at different periods of our lives?

This is a wide-ranging book that looks at the science behind many of these behaviors and it's so much more than just migration. Sometimes animals use polar magnetics to orient themselves, and other times it's the sun. Sometimes it's visual cues or scents, and other times it's simply the influence of the crowd, and more often than not our understanding of it all falls a little short - and yet it's interesting how amazing the world around us is. And while I found the book interesting, I just didn't find it very compelling - I mostly enjoyed it, but it's not one that continues to leave me thoughtful afterward. Heinrich has an easy and poetic style of writing, but I felt the book really bogged down as he went into unusual detail about his own "homing" back to the Maine woods for deer hunting each year. More interesting was his experiments with planting chestnut trees or even the spider living over his cabin desk, but the book lagged in these parts. Still, it's an interesting and inspiring book even if it rambles too much. ( )
  J.Green | Aug 26, 2014 |
How do we find our home and recognize it when we find it?

That’s the question of this book -- animals’ and insects’ abilities to return to their shelters after an hour or a day away, and to migrate seasonally (from areas of food scarcity to food abundance), and to return to childhood locations for reproduction (because reproduction had proven successful there in the past).

But it’s also about a larger meaning of “homing,” as in home-making -- finding and fashioning a physical shelter and developing an emotional attachment. I was interested to learn that humans are the only primates to build homes, and that we possibly began to do so as a way to contain fire.

This is the third book I’ve read by Heinrich (after Summer World and Life Everlasting), and his writing always feels like being in conversation with him over a long nature walk. As on previous “walks,” there’s a central topic but he doesn’t hesitate to explore tangents; my favorites here include a fascinating record of a spider’s feeding habits and a poignant chapter about deer hunting. More so than what I’ve read by him to date, some of this material approaches memoir and is very satisfying to read.

(Review based on an advance reading copy provided by the publisher.) ( )
  DetailMuse | Apr 18, 2014 |
From the title of Bernd Heinrich’s new book, The Homing Instinct, I was expecting a scientific exploration of the migratory behaviors of birds and other creatures that embark on long journeys to and from their breeding grounds, but I found, along with science, an introspective look into the nature and the need to return home. Mixed in with the science, both the author’s own research and that of other scientists, I discovered a beautifully written book consisting of many stories and observations, giving many parts of the book the feel of a memoir. Present throughout is the theme, ‘What is home?’ and ‘Why do all creatures, including humans, feel that pull to return to the place they are from?’.

The Homing Instinct is divided into three sections, the first part delving into homing behavior using the examples of Sandhill Cranes, Monarch butterflies and honey bees to name a few, and their remarkable ability to navigate by the sun and stars, recognize landmarks and arrive at their destination without getting lost. In the second part the author discusses homemaking behavior: types of homes or nests and how to choose the spot, and not only for the animals, this also applies to humans and he uses the example of his own family home and land in the woods of western Maine. In the third part, herding behaving and homing to each other rather than a place is discussed.

There is much to like about Heinrich’s approachable and engaging writing style, and enjoyable stories and anecdotes. In one of my favorite chapters we learn about a web orb spider that made her home inside his home. For two summers he observed and chronicled her behavior, even naming her Charlotte, and in the end discovered that her actions did not follow established spider lore. Another favorite was the story of an old apple tree that he dated to 1790 and his research into the mysterious origin of the tree. Of much interest to me was the sad tale of the now extinct Passenger Pigeon, a victim of man, but also of its own biology and its need to return in enormous size groups to only a few nesting grounds, making it easy prey for hunters.

In both animals and humans, we all yearn to return to that place called home, the place where we feel we belong. Highly recommended, not only for those who enjoy nature, but anyone who wants to better understand our need to return to our roots. ( )
  UnderMyAppleTree | Mar 31, 2014 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0547198485, Hardcover)

Acclaimed scientist and author Bernd Heinrich has returned every year since boyhood to a beloved patch of western Maine woods. What is the biology in humans of this deep-in-the-bones pull toward a particular place, and how is it related to animal homing?

Heinrich explores the fascinating science chipping away at the mysteries of animal migration: how geese imprint true visual landscape memory; how scent trails are used by many creatures, from fish to insects to amphibians, to pinpoint their home if they are displaced from it; and how the tiniest of songbirds are equipped for solar and magnetic orienteering over vast distances. Most movingly, Heinrich chronicles the spring return of a pair of sandhill cranes to their home pond in the Alaska tundra. With his trademark “marvelous, mind-altering” prose (Los Angeles Times), he portrays the unmistakable signs of deep psychological emotion in the newly arrived birds—and reminds us that to discount our own emotions toward home is to ignore biology itself.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:02:18 -0400)

Acclaimed scientist and author Bernd Heinrich has returned every year since boyhood to a beloved patch of western Maine woods. What is the biology in humans of this deep-in-the-bones pull toward a particular place, and how is it related to animal homing? Heinrich explores the fascinating science chipping away at the mysteries of animal migration: how geese imprint true visual landscape memory; how scent trails are used by many creatures, from fish to insects to amphibians, to pinpoint their home if they are displaced from it; and how the tiniest of songbirds are equipped for solar and magnetic orienteering over vast distances. Most movingly, Heinrich chronicles the spring return of a pair of sandhill cranes to their home pond in the Alaska tundra. With his trademark "marvelous, mind altering" prose (Los Angeles Times), he portrays the unmistakable signs of deep psychological emotion in the newly arrived birds, and reminds us that to discount our own emotions toward home is to ignore biology itself.… (more)

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