The Snoring Bird

The central theme of The Snoring Bird is the relationship between a father, Gerd Heinrich, and his son, Bernd, as seen and recorded by the son. The younger Heinrich explores the philosophy of science and a number of biological principles in the context of this relationship and the comparison of the two men’s scientific careers. He touches on the two world wars from a German perspectivehis father fought on that side in both wars. He considers the Cold War, Vietnam, and the impact of all those international events on his family and their biological endeavors.

Bernd Heinrich gathered much of the information about his father from letters his father wrote to, and received from, colleagues and friends, especially Erwin Streseman, a German scientist who was his father’s mentor for much of his career. Heinrich found many of the letters to his father stored in the family’s barn and stained with pigeon waste. To flesh out his father’s career, he also used the books and scientific papers his father wrote and his own interactions with his father, including stories that his father told when he and his sister were young.

Heinrich describes his father, whom he calls Papa throughout the book, as a single-minded, self-taught scientist whose life centered around a group of parasitic wasps, the ichneumon wasps. With the assistance of family members and friends, he collected wasps from all over the world and wrote scientific papers on their characteristics, relationships, and natural history. He worked as a biological collector, and wherever he went he collected and preserved ichneumon wasps as well as the specimens he was paid to collect, primarily mammals and birds. His wives, Anneliese Machatchek and Hildegarde Buruvna (Mamusha, Bernd’s mother), and Anneliese’s sister, Liselotte Machatchek, were frequent members of his field crew. Anneliese participated even after he divorced her so he could marry Hildegarde. He drew Bernd into the effort in hopes that his son would take up the research on the ichneumon wasps and continue his work.

Bernd did take up a career in biology and natural history, but he worked with sphinx moths, bees, and ravens, not ichneumon wasps. Unlike his father, he obtained an undergraduate degree, a master’s degree, and a Ph.D.; he embraced a new biological philosophy and methodology that paid less attention to collections of whole animals and leaned more on behavioral, physiological, and molecular methods. He was employed as a faculty member at universities and published papers in the most prestigious scientific journals. Such accomplishments were difficult for his father to achieve; some eluded him entirely, at least in part because he did not have the appropriate degrees and because his methods were those of a previous generation.

Heinrich describes his father’s participation in both world wars as a member of the German military, including a number of brushes with death. Later, when Bernd decided to volunteer for the Vietnam War, his father advised against it and based his advice on the contrast between his own enthusiastic loyalty to Germany in World War I and his lack of enthusiasm for Hitler’s leadership in World War II. He suggested that, from his German perspective, Vietnam was more like World War II. The younger Heinrich volunteered anyway but was rejected because of a bad back. He eventually came to agree with his father that the Vietnam War was a mistake.

At the end of World War II, the Heinrich family immigrated to the United States. The story of their journey and life on a farm in Maine is an example of the immigration experience of a number of Europeans at the time. The consideration of his family’s interaction with these and other historic events enriches both the narrative and the reader’s appreciation for the events themselves.

Heinrich compares his father’s attachment to Borowke, his estate in Poland until it was confiscated by the Soviet communists at the end of World War II, with his own attachment to two properties of his youth: Germany’s Hahnheide forest, where the family stayed for several years after World War II, and the property he grew up on in Maine, were Bernd’s Borowke. He considers each man’s love of nature and of discovery to be rooted in those attachments.

Heinrich describes his father’s collecting trips as great adventures full of hardships, close calls, and outstanding success. An example, from which the title of the book is derived, is his Indonesian collecting trip. A bird, a type of rail with a call that sounds like a snore, was the primary target...

(The entire section is 1881 words.)


Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 30, no. 3 (Summer, 2007): 427.

Globe and Mail, June 2, 2007, p. D6.

Library Journal 132, no. 9 (May 15, 2007): 113.

Los Angeles Times, May 13, 2007, p. R6.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (June 24, 2007): 24.

Science News 172, no. 8 (August 25, 2007): 127.

Scientific American 297, no. 2 (August, 2007): 100.