Quoth not the Raven


I heard a new sound from the wild ravens today.

When Never and More returned (or so it appeared) with the four wild ravens, the four adolescents called out in a delightfully sweet sing-songy call.  Even after they settled in the desert 50 yards from the house, the continued to fill the air with sound.  Never and More, however, sat mutely on the fence.

According to Heinrich, ravens may have the greatest number of vocalizations out of any other birds [Any readers who’ve gotten this far have to check out Ravens in Winter].  But he also cautions that we shouldn’t get sidetracked by this idea of “language” as a sole proof of cognition.  Animals (including humans) can have (and communicate) symbolic or visual ideas without expressing them through “language”.  What’s key here might be whether the birds can use sound and motion to communicate intent and information to influence the behavior of their peers.  Clearly they can.

Our ears here at Walpi Housing have detected at least 6 distinct vocalizations.  There’s the loud relentless hungry call.  They would do this as young, their mouths gaped open, yawning to be fed.  Then the defensive/aggressive call used to scare away an intruder.  It’s feels like a shrill growl and is sometimes accompanied by a circling and prodding forward and falling back (imagine a boxer baiting an opponent in the ring).  Third, there’s the gentle gurgle when being fed or recently sated.  Fourth, the call and response murmur. It’s like a brief purr, or the “hmmm…yes…hmmm” that you get from a good active listener.  Fifth is a conversant squawk.  I squawk, you squawk.  But it’s not aggressive and more like a loud animated conversation between friends.  Except that they know what’s being said and we don’t.  And now lastly, the playful, sing-song call.

Of course, I would bet that these birds can say a hell of a lot more than that.  I’m just slow at learning raven.  As with prairie dog speech [Also check out the great NPR/Radio Lab story on prairie dogese], their language could possibly include a range of microtones that our ear can’t detect.  Their language could also include accompanying behavior or gestures or the simple (and complex) modeling of behavior.

Our birds have largely grown up feral:  they’ve been removed from raven society and have had to grow up in a human/cat/dog/chicken society.  Although we’ve done our best to feed and care for them, any well-meaning raven equipped with a cell phone would have long ago called CPS.

We are totally unskilled at communicating the wealth of information and skills a parent raven would model and teach their young. We can’t fly, let alone fly efficiently.  We don’t know good food from very good food, from bad.  I can’t build a nest with my hands let alone a beak.  And though I can pretend, I can’t talk raven.

Of course, that’s not entirely true.  Inter-species communication revolves in part around communicating intent.  And that may or may not involve words.  It may happen through creating a “sense” in one’s mind and being, and letting that sense communicate itself (through sub-conscious behavior or telepathically or whatever).  It sounds wacky, but how many times have you walked into a room, seen someone and recognized immediately, I like that person.  I want to be with them.  It’s Malcolm Gladwell’s “first handshake” – that the majority of your impressions of a person are formed within the first five seconds.

Or take our recent time away.  A nervous house sitter stepped in and the household slipped into chaos.  The cats ran away (for 15 days!), Mango the dog was afraid to go out, the stray busted into the chicken coop, and the chickens stopped laying.  Ravens wouldn’t allow the house sitter to approach, while Kerry could just saunter up.  Then we returned.  A few minutes of meows and calls by the hospital and the emaciated cats poked their heads out from the culverts.  Chester the stray returned to his characteristic abeyance.  Mango perked up, and we’re back to two eggs a day now.  We’re back to a peaceable kingdom.  How is it that our presence can communicate “all is well, all is safe” and balance be restored?

Think also of Cesar, the Dog Whisperer.  Or better yet, the original Horse Whisperer [the recent documentary Buck is a must see].

So back to the sweet sing-song call of the ravens.  I heard it from the four wild ravens, but not from Never and More.  It could be that they were wary, or didn’t yet know the social cues that would help them fit in with the crowd.  But it made me wonder about the language instinct and language acquisition among birds.  I hazard that something like the language instinct is there; even without the influence of the parents, the ravens share information.  Hungry birds call out shrilly (imagine the nerve-rattling quality of a baby’s cry).  Or dog approaches Poe, and Never and More call out defensively.

But what of more nuanced communication?  Like humans, do ravens have a critical period in which the parents can jumpstart the language acquisition ability, and if they miss the window, the birds won’t be able to get it?

I think of the girl Genie [check out the classic New Yorker article by Russ Rymer]   who in the 1970’s was raised in far more feral conditions than our poor ravens. She spent the first 13 years of her life locked in a room tied to a potty chair.  Her father beat her and silenced her whenever she attempted to make a sound and other family members were forbidden to speak to her.

Genie grew up without language.  And despite being strikingly intelligent and communicative, she could never learn how to communicate her ideas through speech.

What of our birds, then?  We’ve spared them from grievous abuse (as far as we know), but have the poor things missed a window that would have allowed them rich communication with their fellow birds?  Why should emergent neural pathways in a highly developed and socially oriented avian brain develop any differently than that of a human?

I want their fellow birds to ask them.  And what if they can’t answer?  What if quoth not the Raven?  What if Nevermore?

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