Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman
A couple of days ago I was awakened around four in the morning to a chorus of crows calling in a tree outside my window. The caw, caw was loud and, to my astonishment, in unison. The racket continued for about five minutes and then, without any discernable reason, it stopped – again, as one voice.
I later found out that April-May is nesting time for crows in this region. Crows are known for their communal behaviors, and in particular, in their practice of ganging up to ward off a threatening presence. Possibly the cacophony outside my window was a call of alarm to intimidate an owl or some other predator that was threatening a nest.
In the days following this experience, I thought about language and about how communication can be so essential to a group’s survival. It occurred to me that this capacity to use sound as a symbol of something else is obviously not exclusive to humans. Other species also make use of vocalizations to inform their group members about conditions in their environment, in this case a communal sound of alarm in response to a menace.
In 1980 a group of biologists observed vervet monkeys in Africa and discovered that the monkeys not only verbalized danger, but their calls were acoustically unique, depending on the predator. Each alarm brought about different responses. A warning about a leopard would send the monkeys running into the trees. To an eagle alarm, all would look up. A snake alarm, they would look down. The researchers concluded that vervet alarm calls function to designate different classes of external threats.
Another area of interest for researchers is to determine to what extent, if at all, interspecies communication occurs. Can there be a sharing and understanding of information between two or more species?
The best opportunity to look at this is with our pets, starting with dogs.
Human to dog exchanges occur in myriad ways. A whistle brings the dog home. Verbal commands are given and the dog responds. You cry and the dog comes and lays at your feet. Dog to human verbalizations come in the form of barks and growls and yips and cries. Through these sounds you know if the dog is angry, frightened, or happy. The dog makes a sound, and you respond.
Cats, being more aloof than dogs, are harder to read, and they only respond to verbal commands when they want. I did have two experiences with my cats, however, that I view as examples of interspecies warnings.
The first was when I was evacuated during a wildfire. I had received a robo call warning that I had ten minutes to get out of my house. I almost had to leave one of my cats when she scratched her way out of my grip as I was putting her into her carrier. She ran and hid under a couch and I couldn’t coax her out. Not even her favorite treat grabbed her attention. I moved the couch, and she moved with it. I begged her to come out. In desperation, I walked out of the room thinking I would have to leave her. Then back into the room and one last try. In my most authoritarian voice I called out, you’ve got to come out, now! And she did. Like an obedient puppy dog, she walked right up to me. I popped her into her carrier with no trouble and we were gone.
The other experience was with a very verbal male cat who warned me of a problem. I had finished washing the dishes and was sitting in the living room. This cat kept running back and forth between the living room and the kitchen, meowing in what seemed like a stress call. I followed him into the kitchen and found I had left the water running just a slight bit. Somehow he had figured out this was not right. So I turned the water faucet off and that was that. He went on his way unperturbed.
Life is full of surprises.