Danger! Danger!

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.

  Vervet Monkeys

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.

5 thoughts on “Danger! Danger!”

  1. I like the topic of communication whether dogs, cats, crows or people. If I were starting my Psych over again, I think that might be my direction of study!

    We have 2 mama cats and 8 kittens, and they are really fun to observe. You do hear the vocal variations of the mamas when they call or round up the kittens, when they are content or watchful, when they bring in a kill and when they defend it!

    Also read a little in the area of teaching children with autism, and the topic of behavior as communication came up. I am familiar with this in the horse whisperer type training with horses, and with mating and defensive or aggressive posturing of animals, but it seems like such a good thing to be aware of when teaching or being with kids who can’t express their thoughts or concerns verbally.

    There is something very pleasing about bring heard and understood. And something satisfying about clarity in communication. Animals seem to keep it simple and clear. With purpose.

    1. I, too, love the topic of communication, but I must admit that animal communication really interests me. I watch the cats and notice the non-verbal, subtle messages that pass among them – particularly when it comes to things like who eats first, or who “owns” that toy or scratch pad, etc. Is there something in their eyes? An energy? Is there something equivalent in animals to human facial expressions or muscle tension that communicates?

  2. Animals communicate in so many ways, so much more than we credit them for. They also have super hearing capabilities and another “sense” especially when something is wrong. Your pet senses that a human coming into their space is not of a stellar quality and will growl or signal his owner. I think in our very busy world focused on getting things done, we often don’t take the time to marvel at all of G-d’s creations. Each thing, each cell has purpose in intertwining with something else. Quite astounding and beautiful.

  3. As a cat and cockatiel owner/caretaker I can personally attest to the communication skills of both. Our bird vocalizes differently to each member of our family. When our daughter, who
    lives across the street, enters our front door, Ms. Monk carries on a a lengthy, high-pitched dialog in response to her arrival. My wife’s interactions with Ms. Monk are carried out in a
    more normal manner. My interactions are even lower key. This indicates she recognizes each
    person family member requiring unique vocalizations.

    Our cat really has the family members trained, particularly when he wants his “special treats,”
    actually pieces of BBQ’d chicken. He enters the kitchen and sits in front of the refrigerator to
    signal this desire. He knows my wife is known as the “chicken lady,” because she is the only
    member giving it to him. He may not be able to speak in a language understood by us, however over the course of our long-term relationship, we have developed our own system of communicating our wants and needs to each other.

    1. I wonder whether your cat and my cat and other people’s cats have a universal way of “speaking”. When my cats want something they do the same thing. They will sit in front of the object of their desire and wait. I think cats do a lot of internal “thinking” when they want something, and sitting and waiting for something to happen seems to be a part of that process.

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