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The Homing Instinct: Meaning and Mystery in Animal Migration

The Homing Instinct: Meaning and Mystery in Animal Migration

3.0 2
by Bernd Heinrich

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“A noted naturalist explores the centrality of home in the lives of humans and other animals . . . A special treat for readers of natural history.” — Kirkus Reviews
Every year, many species make the journey from one place to another, following the same paths and ending up in the same places. Every year since boyhood, the


“A noted naturalist explores the centrality of home in the lives of humans and other animals . . . A special treat for readers of natural history.” — Kirkus Reviews
Every year, many species make the journey from one place to another, following the same paths and ending up in the same places. Every year since boyhood, the acclaimed scientist and author Bernd Heinrich has done the same, returning to a beloved patch of western Maine woods. Which led him to wonder: what is the biology in humans of this primal pull toward a particular place, and how is it related to animal homing? In The Homing Instinct, Heinrich explores the fascinating mysteries of animal migration: how geese imprint true visual landscape memory; how scent trails are used by many creatures to locate their homes with pinpoint accuracy; and how even the tiniest of songbirds are equipped for solar and magnetic orienteering over vast distances. And he reminds us that to discount our human emotions toward home is to ignore biology itself.
“A graceful blend of science and memoir . . . [Heinrich’s] ability to linger and simply be there for the moment when, for instance, an elderly spider descends from a silken strand to take the insect he offers her is the heart of his appeal.” — Julie Zickefoose, Wall Street Journal
“Deep and insightful writing.” — David Gessner, Washington Post

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
★ 04/01/2014
Readers of this, or any of Heinrich's previous books (Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death), will recognize his habits of mind—observing, questioning, measuring, wondering, drawing, problem solving—the supply of applicable gerunds nearly runs out. Here the author explores homing and home building, working the theme across the animal spectrum (with a side trip into the vegetal world of chestnut trees). Heinrich (emeritus, biology, Univ. of Vermont) divides his latest work into three broad sections: the first, perhaps most familiar to readers, covers homing, where the wonders of some migratory animals' navigational prowess is examined; the second investigates the physical structures in which some beasts dwell; and, in a richly allusive third part, where Heinrich's own return home frames the narrative, he considers how all of this relates to human biology and culture. Much of the author's inquiry occurs locally, in the Maine woods, but the study of some extraordinary homemakers—frogs, sociable weaver birds, sandhill cranes—takes him to far-flung Suriname, the Kalahari, and Alaska. VERDICT Natural history fans will love this book. Its appeal is multilayered, with many fascinating instances of Heinrich's fabled fieldwork and plenty of hard science. Add to that those moments where the author stands agape at what he observes—say, a spider's web—and the writing nearly attains the lyric poignancy of poetry. [See Prepub Alert, 11/1/13.]—Robert Eagan, Windsor P.L., Ont.
Publishers Weekly
Retired biologist Heinrich (Life Everlasting) combines a scientific examination of animal migration with elements of journalism and memoir to produce a thoroughly engaging book. To open, he discusses the amazing ability of a diverse array of animals to migrate long distances and to return to their home breeding grounds: sandhill cranes annually to a small pond in Alaska after overwintering in Mexico, albatrosses to a speck of land in the middle of the ocean to breed after being away for years at a stretch, or salmon to their natal stream. Heinrich comfortably recognizes that there is a great deal that scientists have yet to discover and poses intriguing unanswered questions. The highlight of Heinrich’s second section is his recounting of an expedition he made to a pristine rainforest in the mountains of Suriname. In the final section he focuses on himself and his home in Maine, writing beautifully of living and hunting on his land as well as the myriad ways he has come to know the fauna and flora with which he shares his property. Although the books elements do not fit seamlessly, the work is strong enough to yield a holistic picture of various aspects of this important natural phenomenon. Agent: Sandra Dijkstra, Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. (Apr.)
Kirkus Reviews
A noted naturalist explores the centrality of home in the lives of humans and other animals. "Not just any place will do," writes Heinrich (Emeritus, Biology/Univ. of Vermont; Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death, 2012, etc.), winner of the 2013 PEN New England Award for Nonfiction. "For other animals and us, home is a ‘nest' where we live, where our young are reared." In this delightful, wide-ranging meditation on the pull of home, the author examines the homing behaviors of species from songbirds to caterpillars to a pair of sandhill cranes, which make an annual 5,000-kilometer journey from Texas or Mexico to a precise place—their home pond—in Alaska. Like us, birds use the sun as a compass for homing. Other species use scent trails or water or air currents as travel guides. Drawing on his own observations and research, as well as the work of such specialists as zoologist Archie Carr (turtle homing) and ornithologist Gustav Kramer, Heinrich tells the homing stories of innumerable species and describes similarities to the behaviors of humans—innate homebodies who need only familiar landmarks to find their ways home. There are many examples of home building: Termites recycle feces to create tiny cities. Honeybees build honeycombs. Woodpeckers excavate out of solid wood. All choose particular places that protect against weather and predators. The author describes the year in which a spider became his housemate and the array of deer mice, phoebes, hornets, ants, flickers and other creatures that made themselves comfortable in his cabin in the woods. From ancient campfires to the apple orchards planted by Europeans declaring their intention to settle in places in the American West, Heinrich examines all aspects of life associated with home. A special treat for readers of natural history.

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Read an Excerpt


Our passionate preoccupation with the sky, the stars, and a God somewhere in outer space is a homing impulse.
We are drawn to where we came from.
—Eric Hoffer

With all things and in all things, we are relatives.
—Native American (Sioux) proverb

I leaned on the ship’s railing at the stern, a ten-year-old boy with virtually no notion of where my family might be going. I heard the deep roar of the engines, the whine of the wind, and the rush of the churning water. I felt adrift, as though carried along like a leaf in a storm, feeling the rocking, the spray, and the endlessness and power of the waves. I had no notion that we were among multitudes who had made hard decisions to court the great unknown, or any clear idea of why my family had left the only home I’d known in a forest in Germany. The only picture of what our new home might be was that we might find magical hummingbirds, and fierce native tribes armed with knives, bows and arrows, spears, and tomahawks.
   Security for me was the memory of where we had come from, specifically a little cabin in the woods and a cozy arbor of green leaves that enclosed me like a cocoon where I could see out but nobody could see in. It meant a feeling of kinship with the tiny brown wren with an upright stubby tail that sang so exuberantly near its snug feather-lined nest of green moss hidden under the upturned roots of a tree in a dark forest. I had in idle moments in my mind inhabited that nest. I found too the nest of an equally tiny long-tailed tit. This little bird’s home was almost invisible to the eye because it was camouflaged with lichens that matched those on the thick fork of a tall alder tree where it was placed.
   The ocean all around was a spooky void. But then, after several days at sea, a huge white bird with a black back appeared as if out of nowhere, and it followed us closely. I saw its dark expressionless eyes scanning us. It was an albatross. It skimmed close over the waves and sometimes lifted above them, circled back, and then picked up momentum to again skim alongside our boat. It followed us for hours, maybe even days.
   The albatross was big and flew without beating its wings. Years later I wondered if, even in the featureless open ocean where so much looked the same every hour and every day, it may have known where it was all along. How do we find our home and recognize it when we find it? These questions were inchoate then, but given the examples of other animals, they put many ideas of home and homing in context.
   Later, as a graduate student, I read that pigeons could return home to their loft even when released in unfamiliar territory, and that some other birds could navigate continental distances using the sun and the stars. There were few answers to how they did it. But I read about researchers at Cornell University who attached magnets to the heads of pigeons and got them all confused. Donald Griffin, my scientific hero (who had discovered how bats can snatch silent moths out of the air in a totally dark room that had wires strung all over the place), was releasing seagulls over forest where they could never have been before and then tracking the birds’ flight paths, by following them in an airplane. Most of his birds turned in circles before some of them flew straight, although why was not clear. Searching for a thesis problem to work on, I wrote to ask him if birds passing through clouds might keep in a straight line by listening to the calls flocks make while migrating. He replied in a long, thoughtful letter to let me know that this idea was too simplistic, and that one should not discount much more complicated mechanisms. That was excellent advice. I did not then have the means to solve any of these puzzles, but over the years I have kept in touch with the evolving field of animal navigation and its relevance to the need for a home.

For other animals and for us, home is a “nest” where we live, where our young are reared. It is also the surrounding territory that supports us. “Homing” is migrating to and identifying a suitable area for living and reproducing and making it fit our needs, and the orienting and ability to return to our own good place if we are displaced from it. Homing is highly specific for each species, yet similarly relevant to most animals. And the exceptions are illuminated by the rule.
   The image of that albatross took on more meaning decades later, after I learned that the species mates for life and returns to the same pinpoint of its home, on some island shore where it was born, perhaps fifteen hundred kilometers distant. During the years when it grows to adulthood it may never be in sight of land. Seven to ten years after having left its home, it returns there to nest. It chooses to go there because of its bond. When a pair eventually have a chick in a nest of their own, each parent may travel over fifteen hundred kilometers of ocean to find a single big meal of squid, and after gathering up a full crop, it then flies home in a direct line; it knows where it is at all times.

The broad topic of homing subsumes many biological disciplines. In order to show the connections among all animals and us, I have interpreted the traditional use of an animal’s “territory,” or “home territory,” simply as “home.” We think of “home” primarily as a dwelling, but in order to be inclusive with other animals, I here consider their dwellings to be their homes as well. My application of the same terms to different species is deliberate for the sake of scientific rigor and objectivity, to acknowledge the continuity between our lives and those of the rest of life. I realize that this smacks to some of anthropomorphism, a pejorative term that has been used for the purpose of separating us from the rest of life. The behaviors involved in homing include drives, emotions, and to some extent also reason.
   A home makes many animals’ lives possible: home is life-giving and sought after with a passion to have and hold. We humans are not thinking much about “home” for animals when we confine them in cages devoid of almost everything they need except air, food, and water in a dispenser, or when we destroy the habitat that contains the essentials of home for many species. So I begin our exploration of home and its implications with the example of the common loons, Gavia immer, birds that may live for decades. The collaborative study by three biologists, Walter Piper, Jay Mager, and Charles Walcott, reveals how important home can be—enough for fights to the death.
   Loons spend winters in the open ocean, but a pair migrate from it and across the land back to their home, a specific northern pond or lake, to nest along its shore in the spring and raise one or two chicks out on the water. Starting almost immediately after ice-out and almost until freeze-up, camp owners along a lake routinely see “their” pair of loons year after year. It had long been assumed that the same individuals return each year and live as monogamous pairs on their strongly defended home territory. Huge surprises were in store after 1992, when techniques (using a boat, a strong light, and a net) were developed to capture loons and mark them with colored leg bands to identify individuals. In a long-term study of a population of loons in Wisconsin in a cluster of about a hundred lakes, it turned out that a pair of loons indeed returned year after year to their home. However, they were not always the same birds. As expected, given their longevity and reproductive potential, there were many “floaters,” those still without a home, and some of them routinely replaced members of a pair.
   The floaters regularly visited different pairs at home at their respective lakes, and spirited vocal meetings resulted. These seldom led to fights, but they were not just friendly visits. These floaters were at first thought to invade others’ home grounds in order to make “extra-pair parenting” attempts (which in males refers to extra-pair copulations and in females to egg dumping into the others’ nests). However, DNA fingerprinting of the young loons from four dozen families produced not a single incident of extra-pair parenting. Instead, the visits by floaters were of an entirely different nature. They had an almost literally “deadly” purpose. The floaters were scouting—making assessments of both the worthiness of the others’ real estate and the defensive capabilities of the resident males—to gauge the possibility for future takeovers.

Meet the Author

BERND HEINRICH is an acclaimed scientist and the author of numerous books, including the best-selling Winter World, Mind of the Raven, Why We Run, The Homing Instinct, and One Wild Bird at a Time. Among Heinrich's many honors is the 2013 PEN New England Award in nonfiction for Life Everlasting. 

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The Homing Instinct: Meaning and Mystery in Animal Migration 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Extremely disappointing. The photo on the cover implies insights into birds. It degenerates into the author killing  a plethora of insects to see how a spider will react and two  chapters about deer hunting. I recycled it after I read it. It felt like a collection of unrelated essays. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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