Alison's Reviews > The Snoring Bird: My Family's Journey Through a Century of Biology

The Snoring Bird by Bernd Heinrich
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Jun 09, 2011

bookshelves: birds
Read from June 09 to 12, 2011

A memoir by biologist/environmental ecologist/writer Bernd Heinrich, best known for his books on raven behavior. It follows the history of his German-Polish family, especially the life of his father Gerd, through two world wars and over to America. Gerd was a specialist on the taxonomy of ichneumon wasps (look them up) and a collector of museum specimens (mostly birds and small mammals), two pursuits (really obsessions) that took him on many expeditions all over the world. Bernd reflects on how his father's preoccupation with an always obscure and increasingly old-fashioned branch of the sciences affected their family, and his father's disappointment in him when he chose a more energetic, experiment-driven approach to the study of biology. (Note that he never even considered taking a path that was NOT that of a scientist--like business school, for example. Was it genetics or was it environment? As the historian daughter of two historians, I can't say myself.)

Bernd is more like Gerd than he would probably admit in another way as well--an overwhelming male chauvinism. The pages of this memoir abound with mentions of wives, girlfriends, and daughters bullied, manipulated, and most of all pushed aside and neglected. The most appalling example on the part of Gerd: his son (Bernd) was born just before WWII, and was actually the child of his Polish mistress, Hilde. He went to a lot of trouble to disguise Hilde as a German, put her through a Nazi state-funded program that supported unwed mothers, and then "take in" the baby with his real wife Anneliese, who was Hilde's employer. But then Hilde almost immediately got pregnant again, and they could not do the same song and dance as before again, so they smuggled her out of town and she had the baby with friends in another city. Then Gerd wrote her that he had met another woman and wanted to marry her. If the other woman had not refused that offer, Bernd writes, he and his mother and newborn sister (not to mention Anneliese!) would have been destitute and would probably not have survived the war. He later ended up marrying Hilde and used her as his secretary and assistant on all of his expeditions, while still having various affairs. Bernd makes no excuses for his father's past behavior as he describes how he exploited and cheated on all the various women in his life, sort of a "must get it all down for posterity" approach. Then he mentions fairly casually how his own obsession with tracking the behavior of birds and bees (while his then-wives raised his young children) cost him two marriages--all in one chapter, mostly filled with details about what he learned from the bugs. Yeah. Sorry Bernd, you haven't done anything nearly as bad as almost abandon a woman in wartime Germany, but I think you earned those divorces.

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