It’s been quieter than usual around here for the last month. Yes, the littler songbirds were tweedling away in breeding season, and scolding and running off interlopers, but the crows barely made a peep. I assume they’ve been busy on the nest and not wanting to draw undue attention from eagles and hawks, but their nestlings have by now feathered up, thudded to the ground, and walked around in a daze for a few days, and at this point everyone’s airborne and wants to catch up. They’re yakking all the time and, frankly, talking over each other, although that’s not considered rude in that society. Crows make a lot of different noises but today one of them is just going CRAWK CRAWK CRAWK without letting up one bit.
A lot of humans don’t think much of that particular racket, although that’s pretty rich coming from a species that invented the leaf-blower. It doesn’t bother me at all, but I admit I can’t imagine why a bird that can make lots of different sounds would choose to CRAWK for hours on end. What is being communicated here? Maybe nothing much. Maybe it’s just one crow taking on the town crier gig. “12 o’clock and all’s well! 12:00:05 and all’s well! 12:00:10 and all’s well! 12:00:15 and all’s BLAM [thud].”
[Here I would like to insert that crows are protected under the Migratory Bird Act of 1918 but in Indiana, at least, you may kill a crow that is “about to commit a depradation upon an ornamental tree,” which explains the well-worn cinematic trope “Git the shotgun, Henry, thet crow is commencin’ to commit a depradation on the plumeria!”]
But when I say the crows hadn’t made a peep I wasn’t being figurative. They do peep. They warble and chuckle and even pull off a paradiddle-and-rimshot from time to time, and when I’m engaging with my personal crows, and asking them how they are, they answer very quietly. I can see their throats working in response but I can’t make out what they’re saying. I suspect, though, that if I were their exact same size and sitting right next to them, I could hear it just fine. I further suspect that most birds are communicating in a much more sophisticated manner than even experts give them credit for.
I remember hearing some scientist being interviewed on NPR who, when asked what a chickadee was saying when he said “chick-a-dee,” said “Probably he’s just saying ‘I’m a chickadee!’” Well. At the very least he’s saying “I am chickadee Ralphie S. Mossmaster and all this here is my crib so the rest of you should back off.” But I for one am not willing to swear they don’t occasionally shoot the breeze with each other. Have you seen Marge lately? I mean, we all gotta molt, but she’s really let herself go.
We just don’t know. For the most part we’re like the Americans who listen to someone for whom English is her sixth language and say: Shoo-ee, she’s stupid. She don’t even talk right.
I was walking by the river yesterday and heard a crow CRAWKing from a tree, and a young mother turned to her toddler and said “That’s a duck! Can you say Quack, quack, quack?” There didn’t seem to be much point in correcting the woman, but I’ll just put it out there that the basic duck quack is specifically coming from a mallard, and a female one at that, and in season what she’s probably communicating is Get out of here with your dang corkscrew dick and leave me alone, and crows are never, ever saying that. They don’t even have dicks. So that’s one way to tell the difference.
Most of us don’t know much about birds at all, and even those who do have learned to be humble about it. It’s best to assume they’re talking about us. It isn’t always about us. But sometimes it is. So behave, and try not to commit a depradation.