Song Birds

ImageHer card describes Kristen Hein Strohm as a Wildlife Biologist and Statistician and is illustrated with a songbird (the species of which I do not know) and a warble of lambda equations and binary sets of numbers.

Last night Kristen (with her husband Steve in accompaniment) warbled something far different than lambda equations. Sweet and lilting, her voice strayed between a whisper and song. It was quiet and full in a way not dissimilar from her manner of speaking.

I bumped into her this morning as she was making her way toward coffee, her skirt stitched with swatches of fabric outlining an owl basking in the moon.

In addition to her fieldwork, Kristen also leads workshops in teaching people how to observe wildlife. Once you know what to look for, you don’t need many more tools. So much depends simply on abandoning preconceptions and investing the time to make the observations.

Kristen’s expertise begs a pet question: Did other species of birds express the same social complexity as the corvids?

It doesn’t take much to get a trained wildlife biologist going so fast that you can’t keep up with her.

The corvids are incredibly complicated, she says. They have intricate language and distinct vocalizations. She went on to describe how many species have song patterns that sound identical and repetitive to us. If you examine a spectrograph, however, you can see that these songs are chocked with microtones that are undetectable to our ears, but signal a range of meanings and references to the song birds themselves. Despite our manifold abilities, we perceive only a limited range of sound, essentially moving through the world with mufflers on. She goes on to explain how certain species of hawks hunt cooperatively and that each hawk is trained to fill a specific role: chasing, banking, cornering, going in for the kill, which they fulfill every time.

All the while as she talks, Kristen parses her sentences with the sweet chipper of bird songs, as if she herself was some hybrid genetically engineered species.

But not all birds communicate with songs, she says, and she talks about the condors, the carrion vultures that don’t have much vocal expression (at least that we presently know about), but instead demonstrate rich and complex gestural displays. As they reintroduce the condors to the wild, they bring in wild condors to tutor the young in the complex code of visual signals. The mentor condors teach the fledgelings a language that is particular to that set of birds. When at last reintroduced, the young have been known to seek out the training condors. When found, they repeat the gestures that they have been taught, including what amounts to a spread winged bow, as if expressing a kind of abeyance to the creature that taught them to be wild.

So much for coffee. Proof, perhaps, that we are, in fact, at the Planet Bluegrass Song School.

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?


This morning, Poe alone in the yard.  No Never.  No More.

In the west toward Floyd’s field, a mile distant, I heard a few calls.  I suspected it was More and Never, but wasn’t sure.  Two days ago on the walk back from the wash, a solitary raven did a fly over.  Poe (in my arms) was the first to catch sight of him and struggled excitedly.  One of our ravens observed where the wild one landed and flew over to join him.  The second raven soon followed.  Never and More had taken off to join one of the wild ravens.  Since it was solitary, we assumed it to be one of the parents.  And there they remained together, all three flitting about in the desert and getting acquainted.

At dusk, Never and More returned and settled in for the evening.

So now, this morning, I have little doubt that the two are off with their new found friend.  But lo, what do I see approaching?  What appear to be six adolescents, dipping, soaring, circling around one another as they approach the house, all the while calling out playfully (more on this in the next post).  I step to the back yard just as four of the ravens settle onto the rise beyond our yard.  And there are Never and More perched on the fence.  The wild ravens continue to call.  It’s not defensive, but more like a summons:  come out and play, join us, why are you sitting on the fence?  But More and Never don’t respond.

I swaddle Poe and set out toward the wash, hoping the other two will follow, (as part of the on-going experiment, I don’t overtly lead them with food this time, waiting to see if they’ll just follow Poe) but they remain where they are, tired perhaps from their morning exertions.  The four wild ravens, however, follow (and lead) us out, and eventually settle in the brush on the far bank while I put Poe in his customary place beneath the tree.  I feed him and he turns to face in the direction of the other birds.  I also leave meat out for them, hoping to attract them to Poe.

I feel like a doting parent trying to introduce my child to new friends on the first day of pre-school.  Please, I want to say, he’s a good bird.  Please, will you be friends with him?

Born Free (sort of) June 19

For those that have been following the saga, I’m providing Kerry’s notes, straight from the horse’s mouth.  If anything, they suggest the richness and nuances of the relationships, interspecies and otherwise.  Hurray for Kerry:

Big doin’s in the wash. When I took them down there, they got separated (because More freaked out a bit and got out of the cage) and were too skittish to recapture. So, I put the more timid of the two in the nest box which was about 150 yards away from where More was hiding in the sagebrush. I was pretty concerned about them finding each other, so a few hours later I went back down.

They were each exactly where I’d left them. I used water to coax Never(?) down out of the nest which he came to immediately. He seemed very affectionate, so I started squawking to him and walking towards More, and sure enough he followed– and meanwhile More was interested enough to fly and walk a bit closer, down into the cornfield.

My squawking brought two mature birds almost instantly; they did some real close flyovers.  Finally the two babies spotted each other– and I’ll tell you, it was quite touching to see them figure it out and hop together for a nuzzling. Palpable relief on all parts, myself included.

Then I walked back to the nest. Never followed along, and More did too at a safe distance. When we got back Never drank some more, and More almost dared to. When I gave Never some elk scraps and he went into full open-mouth-begging calls, More broke down and came over for his share too. So– they’re fed, watered, and both know where the nest box is, and they’re together (at least when I left them).

Lola and I sneaked away and they went off to explore the wash. Parents stayed in sight at all times– fingers crossed that they’ll adopt, rather than attack. Never even pecked and ate a bug at one point. If Broken Wing is still looking chipper tomorrow, I’ll take him down along with their breakfast. More heart-rending photos expected then. Enjoy these! A memorable Father’s Day, in its way.

Who needs TV.

Settling In © Kerry Hardy

Reunited © Kerry Hardy

Parent Flyover and Baby  © Kerry Hardy

Parent Flyover © Kerry Hardy

Born Free (sort of): June 17

The day that the fourth raven died.  Kerry pushed onward:

 I procured a 3′ long bullsnake that a friend had bravely bludgeoned with a 2 x 4 yesterday. I opened its belly and wove the whole schlange into the top of the chainlink fence with the two bravest ravens watching intently. . . and before I had made it to the road, they were both up there pecking, and seemed excited. One grabbed some intestine and flew down to the gravel roadway with it; the other joined him and the two of them danced around it like it was some great exotic delicacy. So there’s hope for them as ravens. . . of course, if the smell of day-old dead snake in 90º weather hasn’t faded out of the Prius by tomorrow morning when we go to Flag, there may be no hope for me. Hang in there, I’ll see what I can do tomorrow once we get back from Flagstaff.

Kudos to Kerry for doing the snake.  Although our house now resembles some charnal house with heads on pikes, etc.

Our wonderful house sitter is none too happy with it, though.  She’s worried that it’ll begin to stink and will attract flies and that the neighbors will go ballistic.  The whole thing is horrifying.  She asks to take the snake down and give it a respectful burial.  She also wants to take the remaining ravens up to the Cultural Center and leave them there where they can pick through trash.

Which summons a whole range of thoughts.

  1. What’s more horrifying:  a rotting dead serpent woven into our fence or a overweight man bludgeoning a harmless bull snake to death with a two by four?
  2. Why do we pay respect to things once they’re dead and not when they’re still living?  Living things (be they spouses or snakes) are messy and involved tangled relationships.  Dead things are simple.  They’re dead.
  3. Ravens are not solitary dumb birds.  They live in family groups and have extended relations.  This family group has been living at the confluence of the Wepo and Polacca washes for a while now.  A Hopi can’t live apart from Hopi.  A Hopi outside of the clan and village and this particular spot of land is nothing.  They exist in groups.  To an extent, the same holds true of ravens.  To send them up to Second Mesa, we might as well ship them to Siberia.  Furthermore, they’re adolescents yet and a huge amount of learning is to be had, ideally through the parents.

But our poor house sitter.  She (along with the rest of the neighborhood) are under the impression we want to keep them as pets.  Time for a massive media campaign.  Perhaps through a blog or something.

Trust © Kerry Hardy


Born Free (sort of): June 16

The ravens are returning to the wild.

We’ve waited until they’re confident in their flying and they can safely evade predators.  Unfortunately, I’ve been away for the reintroduction and it’s fallen on Kerry Hardy’s shoulders.  Don’t get me wrong.  Despite his shameful and perennial unemployment and his poor standing in his wife’s eyes, he’s capable enough.  He’s from Maine, after all.  But what an opportunity to miss.

High wind day at Hopi.  Kerry went up on the ramada despite it all and removed the straw bale windbreak and the nest.  Two  of the birds pretty much  out and about for most of the day while the other two stuck to the yard.

Prison Yard © Kerry Hardy


Killing Prejudice


Hanging © Andrew Lewis

I think I’ve had it.  Forget this abortion we call civilization.

A few days ago our house sitter called all in a panic.  The vibe in the neighborhood was getting bad, she said.  The neighbor was upset because the birds were going to get his corn.  And they were loud.  Another was upset because they were flying to his house and shitting in his yard.  Another complained that one of the birds was calling outside her son’s window in a threatening way.

They’re birds.  Simply birds.  And they’re beautiful.  Beautiful when they squawk.  Beautiful when they fly.

They care for one another.  They don’t sell meth. They don’t kill their spouses or their young.  They don’t watch TV.  How many ways can I count my love for thee?

The following evening our neighbor returned one of the ravens to us.  It was threatening his corn, he said.  Never mind that his corn is only a couple inches high and that the birds don’t yet feed themselves.  

The bird was injured.  He wouldn’t take food and he couldn’t move his wings.  By the next morning he was dead.  Our house sitter buried him in the desert.

Every Hopi who’s heard of our raven adventure has expressed aversion.  Not just surprise, but something close to downright disgust.  They’re ugly black birds.  And they eat the corn.  I might as well tell folks that I’m raising rats.  

Last fall I found a bag of shotgun shells and a bottle of soda beneath the wash nest.  A farmer had perched on the bank and set to taking pot shots at the infants.  In talking to farmers here, they here don’t distinguish between the young and the adults.  They don’t even distinguish between the ravens and the crows.  How can they set to killing them? 

A farmer once told me that he crucified the “crows” in his field because, he said, “Crows are like Navajo. They’re afraid of their own dead.”

Funny.  True on some counts, but not on others.  First off, the things hanging in his field are ravens and not crows.  Secondly, I’m sure the ravens can recognize their dead.  And they probably know to steer clear.  But isn’t that a sign of a higher intelligence?  And shouldn’t intelligence of any sort be respected?  And then there’s the likening to Navajos. In contemporary Hopi culture, they’re seen as raiders and thieves.  I can’t speak for the Navajo, but the ravens out there are as much a part of the ecosystem.  And though Hopi trump all other human occupation on the plateau,  the ravens were here long before the Hopi.

But in some ways I get it.  Crucify the bird.  Set an example.  But do it with prudence.  And attention.  And thoughtful care.

I transplanted vegetable starts last week.  Within an hour the chickens had decimated them.  Chickens and children willfully trample our gardens.  But our first instinct isn’t to haphazardly kill them and hang them in a corn field.  

And christ, if you’re going to kill it, at least know whom it is you’re killing.  Know it by it’s name.  

No.  Our first option should be to figure it out.  In the garden incident, I erected a small chicken wire barrier around the vegetables.  In another, I might discuss the matter with the child. 

Isn’t it our responsibility to protect without killing?  If not, what are we then, but beasts?

Crucifixion © Andrew Lewis

What Good Are These Damn Birds?

Easy enough.

In recent years, what have we learned about them?

They may have more distinct vocalizations than any other bird.  Some believe they may have a highly developed language.  Although they’re frequently confused with crows, they are distinct both in a behavior and appearance:  they’re larger, have longer more pronounced beaks, a bearded tuft beneath their chins.  They raise their young for up to two years.  They have extended family units and complex social networks.  They can distinguish friend from foe and can share this information with other ravens.

They’re omnivores, but primarily feed on carrion.  That means they keep things clean. They eat grasshoppers and rodents that feed on corn.

But them just things I’ve heard.  What have I personally observed?

At times when I’ve approached a nest filled with fledgelings, the male (I assume) has shadowed close (within 15 feet) making loud distress calls.  The female remained in the nest guarding the brood.  At other times, both would follow me with loud calls, chasing me away from the young.

Over the years, as I’ve worked in the yard in the early mornings, the mating pairs have settled on light posts and observed me.  When I’ve called to them, they’ve responded.  Some mornings they approach and call out during their flyover.

When we first placed the young ravens on our ramada, the parents responded to their distress calls.  Since then, they’ve made multiple flyovers, seemingly observing their young.

The parents have relocated to the wash and have joined the nesting pair there.  At times I’ve seen all four perched in the cottonwood, collectively staring toward our housing a quarter mile distant.

The young at our house each have distinct personalities: Poe, the recluse.  More, the insistent.  Never and For hunkered together like twins.  They display affection toward one another and toward us.  When spoken to, they respond with vocalizations.

They’re curious.  And keen observers.

But there’s more.

Serendipitously, they’ve also provided a new lens through which to observe the world. Through their personality and behaviors and all they’ve summoned, new realms, ideas, relationships, phenomena have risen in sharp relief.

So listen for them.  And observe.  Perhaps the best we can do is to follow their call.

Raven Dusk © Kerry Hardy