The Way of the Crow



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 Crow Talk

Crows are marvellous birds, and there are certain things I must tell you about crow talk or language. The reader may smile over my use of the word "language" to describe crow vocalizations. But, if you're ever fortunate enough to intimately share your life with this bird, you will feel more inclined to accept my broad definition of language. My life with Spirit taught me many things about their world, none of which is more outstanding or surprising than the repertoire of sounds which have specific meanings for conditions or events in their lives.

It is difficult to express the excitement I felt whenever Spirit did something unusual, or vocalized in a way I considered foreign to crows. Have you ever heard a crow chirp? Unusual, isn’t it. Yet, on occasion they do chirp, which is a sound you will probably never hear from crows in the wild, when observing them during casual walks about the country. You have to develop a close friendship with the crow before it will reveal the full extent of its vocabulary, and since crows are not greatly loved by the majority of the population, few have heard the more esoteric sounds of crows. I was fortunate to have Spirit as a teacher.

Of course, before Spirit came upon the scene, I was like most people in that I didn't give much attention to the vocal behaviour of crows. All the cawing sounded similar to me. For example, I couldn't recognize (nor was I aware of it, for that matter) the "alert" or "beware" call a crow normally makes when humans or other creatures are in close proximity. This is a rapid series of rather short, high pitched caws which are easily identified with a little experience. Those rapid calls should not be confused with the call of a young crow, which may sound like "car, car, car". I first heard Spirit give the alert call when he spotted my brother Garry's cat crouching nearby in the tall grass. Spirit was furious, and in a minute or so the alert call changed to a flurry of angry caws directed at the startled cat which soon turned and left the area. After that incident, Spirit and the cat got along just fine.

If you listen closely to cawing, you will notice how physical circumstances produce slight variations. For example, if you walk past a crow sitting on a tall pine tree, you may elicit a response different from what you would receive if you approached the same crow with a dozen of your friends! Of course, more often than not, the crow will simply fly away. However, if you want to be a serious student of crow language, you have to pay careful attention to both frequency and pattern of cawing, and to pitch or tone, and the urgency or intensity of the sound. I am now somewhat sensitive to those things, and have noticed that there are occasions when crows caw loudly, simply for the sake of singing to the world!  

Francis Henry Allen, a man who was very keen on crows, appreciative of their language and behaviour patterns, wrote with great persuasion about their aesthetic sensitivity. He noted the wonderful "time rhythm" of their cawing, and observed that while the caws are frequently in triplets with a rhythm of 2-1, there may be four caws in groups of two (2-2) or in the rhythm of 2-1-1, very regular, and without the slightest variation. While Mr. Allen did not suggest those caws represented language or signals, he didn't dismiss them as purely mechanical either. He believed that crows take much delight in their ability to utter a variety of rhythmic songs or sound patterns, and that in a limited way, the crow is a true artist, composer, and performer.16 Certainly, Spirit was very expressive in my presence, uttering notes that ranged the spectrum from annoyance, to anger, to more pleasant melodies indicative of humour, joy and play.

Spirit was also very good at mimicking, mocking, and replying to sounds. Over the years I learned to communicate with him either vocally, or through "tapping" sequences. For instance, in the winter when Spirit was in my cabin, I would often listen for his movements when I awoke during the night. If there was silence, I would tap my knuckles three or more times on the floor, then listen for a reply. Spirit was somewhat of a trickster, and might remain quiet, though I knew he was listening. So, I would tap again. Pretty soon he responded by tapping his cardboard box or some other object, sometimes with an exact copy of my pattern. When this happened, we usually continued our game until we became bored, or I fell asleep.17 

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