By Mary Montgomery
I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, NPR’s TED Radio Hour (online or on your podcast app) the other day, when I heard podcast host, Guy Raz, ask evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel why humans are the only ones who developed language. Pagel’s answer: “It boils down to the fact that other animals don’t really have anything to talk about.”
That really got my dander up. In fact, it tainted the rest of Pagel’s interview on TED Radio Hour’s “Spoken and Unspoken” episode (archived from 2013), and clouded his premise: That humans’ complex language system is a piece of "social technology" that allowed early human tribes to access a powerful new tool: cooperation.
As a spiritually centered being, I totally support the importance of cooperation. As a writer, I absolutely appreciate the power of language. However, I have long believed that it is arrogant for humans to believe that we’re the only ones who possess either of these qualities.
I remembered a bit of research by Austrian Ornithologist and Zoologist Konrad Lorenz that piqued my interest during a long-ago college psychology class. Lorenz had studied the language of crows and discovered that they not only had a complex language, and that crows from different parts of the world had different dialects.
Hmm… I have loved crows ever since they taught Dumbo to fly. (If you never saw that Disney classic, check out “Dumbo When I See an Elephant Fly,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_v2exWrsGOc).
So it is with crow language that I started my Internet exploration. I found a treasure trove of evidence to refute Mark Pagel’s assertions. Much of that evidence is neatly packaged in the documentary, “Crows Smarter Than You Think,” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LF77qpbvkxo).
The documentary points out mankind’s long and checkered past with crows and ravens. They have been feared as symbols of death, because they're all black and scary, revered as creators of the world, and worshiped as trickster gods, because of their baffling intelligence.
Avian Researcher, wildlife biologist & Professor John Marzluff’s research shows that crows can recognize and remember particular people, even particular faces. Researchers in Seattle wore masks while capturing a few crows in a local park. When they returned without the masks, the crows were quiet. Yet when they wore the masks, warning cries erupted from the entire flock. The captured crows not only could pick out who had the mask, they told the other crows about it. Further experiments showed that the crows passed this information down to their offspring.
Crows tell each other about their misfortune. It is not uncommon that if one crow is killed in a farmer’s field that all the other crows will change whole migration routes to avoid that field.
Crows have different calls for cats, hawks, and humans. Scientists have identified over 250 distinct crow calls. Each crow has an individual voice with two different volumes: one loud for the general community, and one soft for talk within the family.
Biologist Anna Braun from the Konrad Lorenz Institute set up an experiment in which research subjects had to figure out which image to tap on in order to get a reward. Children mastered the task after a few tries; dogs after as many as 70 attempts; and crows were as quick as the children.
Biologist Thomas Bugnyar focuses on “theory of mind,” the idea that you yourself, know what you experience, and can also extrapolate and think about others as being their own creatures with their own kind of life. He believes that crows possess these qualities, and is proving it through his observation of how crows cache their food.
“Some people say, “only people do this.” Well, we haven't found that. We may be unique in having a whole cluster of things we do, but what we are going to find out is that other animals can do some of that—and if we figure out the way to ask the questions, we might be surprised at the responses we get.” — Kevin McGowan, Cornell University
“Crows share a lifestyle with us and if we can understand the link between that lifestyle and the evolution of intelligence and the evolution of brains, then we can understand the evolution of brains and intelligence in general, which includes us.” — Louis Lefebvre, McGill University
My Advice: You gotta love those crows! Check out the plethora of YouTube videos on this subject, including the TED Talk by John Marzluff.
Mary Montgomery’s company, Montgomery Media Enterprises, specializes in public relations, writing projects, and social media development, especially in the non-profit sector. Ms. Montgomery has a Master’s Degree in Religious Studies from Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS). She has completed the coursework in doctoral studies with a focus on Altruism and Unconditional Love. Contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please use Cyberweave in the subject line.