(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Bernd Heinrich was born in Germany in 1940, the son of an entomologist and collector for museums who taught him how to observe and capture insects and animals. He ran through the woods so often that his nickname was Wiesel (weasel); in later life he became an award-winning ultramarathon runner. His fascination with running led him to write the popular 2001 book Racing the Antelope: What Animals Can Teach Us About Running and Life. His parents immigrated to the United States when he was ten, and he grew up in Maine, where he loved the outdoors. He earned his Ph.D. in biology in 1970 from the University of California, Los Angeles, and taught at Berkeley from 1971 until 1980, when he returned to New England to teach at the University of Vermont. Though he began his scientific career as a cell biologist studying protozoa, Heinrich is famous for his books on behavioral biology. An admirer of insects, he has hunted scarab beetles in the Namib Desert and run from dragonflies in Botswana. His first book was Bumblebee Economics (1979), now a classic in its field.

Heinrich purchased a three-hundred-acre property in Maine in 1974 and hand-built a cabin in which to live and study local wildlife. Many of his observations supply the delightful stories for this book. The first thing the reader notices is his gorgeous, autobiographical prose. The second is the beautiful, detailed illustrations, drawn by Heinrich. In his introduction, he recalls the seminal Jack London short story “To Build a Fire” (1902), about a newcomer to the frozen Yukon who needed to warm and dry his chilled, wet body with a fire but who made amateur mistakes and died of the cold. There are many small mammals and birds who cannot light fires; Heinrich asks, how do they keep warm during the winter?

Heinrich describes the golden-crowned kinglet, a bird almost as tiny as the hummingbird, whose survival during the harsh Maine winters is wondrous. Watching and wondering about these birds gave Heinrich the impetus to write this book. “The kinglet is thus iconic not only of winter but also of adaptability under adverse conditions. . . . It was the kinglet that led me further and further into the winter world of the north woods, and into this book, spurring me on to find the miraculous.” It is the golden-crowned kinglet which provides a cohesive narrative thread to his anecdotal study, a mystery Heinrich has set out to solve.

Heinrich begins by defining and illustrating some terms for the layman which he will expand upon later, such as hibernation, supercooling, and antifreeze, and he provides a table for conversions between Celsius (or C), his preferred temperature scale, and Fahrenheit. His explanations are clear and accompanied by vivid examples; the reader who has always wondered what keeps an igloo dome from collapsing will find the pleasing answer here. Nonscientists will come away with a new appreciation for heat and cold, for water, ice, and snow and for the remarkable behaviors which have evolved in the animal kingdom to coexist comfortably with them.

Heinrich’s remark that “biology is a sterile undertaking until one gets hands-on experience” seems to be his motto. Describing his own curiosity-driven forays into the wild, he leads his reader into the architectural marvel of a beaver lodge, into a cozy, warm bear den, and into the twiggy drey, or nest, of a northern flying squirrel. He explains why famous groundhog Punxatawney Phil can be relied upon to appear on the second day of each February in Pennsylvania.

He applauds the arctic ground squirrel, which, for eight months of the year, “curls up into a ball close to the ice of the permafrost, and maintains a body temperature at or below the freezing point of water.” Heinrich has a merry sense of humor, recalling how one scientist wondered if the arctic ground squirrels’ blood contained antifreeze. “The blood turned to ice at approximately -0.6 ° C. It therefore did not contain antifreeze. These results deepen the mystery of winter survival: Why should the blood freeze in the lab but not in the animal? The riddle is not yet solved, but the best tentative explanation so far is that the squirrels supercool.” Heinrich explains clearly the process of...

(The entire section is 1732 words.)