The Homing Instinct: Meaning and Mystery in Animal Migration


For Love of Books: A Story About Home from Bernd Heinrich

With Bernd Heinrich’s Introduction, we are presented with the ten-year old Heinrich and his family on an ocean voyage to the New World, in search of a new home. For some of the voyage, he is accompanied by an albatross. The great bird soars effortlessly alongside the rolling diesel-driven ship. Only one of them has any idea about where s/he is going. In the decades to follow that will change.

Heinrich’s new book, The Homing Instinct: Meaning and Mystery in Animal Migration, is a tour-de-force on the importance of home. For some, home is where the heart is, but it is also safety, familiarity, predictability. Home is worth the journey.

Heinrich is truly a rare biologist: he is rigorously and formally trained, he is a superb naturalist, his endless curiosity means he tinkers in the lives of his many subjects, he is a good story teller, and, perhaps most significantly, he knows that he is merely an animal, like the organisms he studies, and can, therefore, learn both about them and himself as he wanders around in the great theatre we call nature.

If the book is really about home, then we might expect examples of short and long-distance movements to and from the hive, nest, beach, island, burrow, or cabin. We might wonder about issues of architecture, visitors, and living together. We might look at fine examples of commitment to one home, and, conversely, we could also think about moving to a new home, or expanding our range in some other way.

All of this is done. We find that a foraging honeybee flies about as fast as a decent 400 meter sprinter, and that one shorebird loses half of its weight as it flies nonstop -- 7250 miles -- from Alaska to New Zealand in just eight days. We explore how caterpillars weave nests, how social insects structure their communes, and how humans are unique among primates in building a home at all. We hear about the use of stars (including the sun), polarized light, and the Earth’s magnetic field to get from hither to yon, and we even worry about whether the four chestnut seeds Heinrich planted are "really" American chestnuts and whether they "belong" in Maine. But make no mistake, this is not primarily a book about getting there; it is about being thereŠwhether you are a spider on your web, or an aging man, wandering around the hills of Weld, Maine. It is about roots, experiences, memories and, thus, home. This is by all odds the most personal book that Bernd Heinrich has ever written. To be sure, it is full of biology, fascinating experimental threads and endless natural history, but it is really a Homeric tale of the author’s coming home to his beloved cabin. To this end, Heinrich quotes Ezra Pound:

"There is a place of treesŠ.gray with lichen. I have walked there thinking of old days."

Bob Engel is a retired Marlboro College biology teacher.


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