Our Window on Nature

. . . exploring the world around us

Animal Communication

Filed under: Critters — Lowell Christie -- September 7, 2015 @ 12:52 pm

GreatHornedOwlThe coyotes have begun singing outside our window, perhaps chorusing some meaningful message or merely entertaining themselves. It is, however, the season in which the boys and girls begin to look each other over, perhaps to evaluate the other’s contribution to the choir.

Also working the night shift, a pair of great horned owls pass through now and again; he hooting with a voice pitched at one level, his lady’s pitched at another. The night is anything but silent, even though our nearest human neighbor is camped many sites away.

So far as we know, only man uses words to communicate his thoughts; however, even though “lower” animals lack the complex system we call language, they get their point across very well. On a superficial level there doesn’t appear to be much commonality in communication among bats and bees, or among badgers and butterflies, yet these creatures actually send many of the same messages – for good reason. There is an almost universal need for understanding among creatures that establish and defend territories, attract and keep mates, bear young, and, in the case of many species, rear those youngsters until they are mature enough to survive on their own.

Animals with highly structured social systems must be able to define the role of each animal within the group. And whether they live alone or in association with others, animals must be able to warn off enemies with messages such as “Mess with me and I’ll eat you for dinner,” or “Don’t bite into me; I taste terrible.” For all these reasons, communication is as vital for those lacking language as it is for those who use words.

Let’s consider first the songs, screeches, and yowls of our vocal neighbors. Dr. Eugene P. Morton of the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., studied the sonograms (two-dimensional graphs of animal sounds) produced by many quite different animals and concluded that all verbalizations fall into three basic categories. The use of sonograms allowed him to ignore such variables as pitch and loudness (which are attributable mostly to size) and to concentrate upon similarities in vocalizations. According to Dr. Morton, the universal language among animals consists of whines, barks, and growls.

All right, so you haven’t heard a goldfinch growl, but think about the broad variation of sounds in a single bird’s repertoire. Contrast the light lisp of a contented gnatcatcher with the deep-throated hiss of the same bird when its territory is invaded. Consider the happy yap of a puppy and the low growl of a hostile dog. According to Dr. Morton, an animal growls when it’s angry, whines when it’s frightened or friendly, and barks when its interest is aroused – and it doesn’t matter whether the animal in question wears scales, feathers, or fur. So dependable is this pattern that it would be theoretically possible to read a sonogram and decipher an animal’s state of mind.

We can do pretty much the same thing simply by using our ears. Before long the birds will be establishing breeding territories, a task that requires much verbalization. First the male must select a desirable site; then he must defend it against all comers. Scientists speculate that vocalizations developed as a way for animals to protect themselves, establish territories, and attract mates without having to wear themselves out in combat (which is so costly in food-gathering terms). A song is worth a thousand blows.

Poets would lead us to believe that the cardinal singing “What cheer, what cheer” just outside our window is caroling to his lady love, but scientists have decided differently. They insist that the songster is simply defending his property rights. It seems that the lady cardinal (or blackbird, or wren) is more impressed by the quality of a male’s territory than by the quality of his song. The business uppermost in her mind is building a nest, followed by egg laying and chick rearing.

First and foremost she wants a male who has a large territory containing plenty of food. Of course, if it’s such a desirable location, less fortunate males would like to usurp just a bush or two or the edge of a pond. The resident male is kept busy flying around the boundaries of his property, singing from this perch and that, so as to reinforce his claim against all who contest it. It’s enough to wear one’s feathers to a frazzle.

As the mating season winds down, so do most birds’ ties to their territories. The singing season ends by late summer; by that time we notice fewer and less highly developed vocalizations, and many of them sound downright off-key. (That’s the next generation tuning up their instruments.) Young males aren’t born musicians; they learn their distinct songs by imitating their elders. Unfortunately, their early efforts are equivalent to the virgin notes of a music student scratching the strings of a violin. But the young birds keep practicing until they get it right.

Most birds direct their songs strictly to birds of their own species, but the same is not true of other avian vocalizations. Walk into the woods and make sibilant “pishes” or squeaky kissing noises on the back of your hand and you’ll find yourself the center of attention as birds pop out of the bushes making alarm calls. Often birds of several species respond to each others’ concern. Birders soon learn to make a broad variety of hisses and squeals to draw birds in for identification, but those with good manners remember that such disruptions should not be continued for long, since the birds might be better employed elsewhere.

Birds aren’t the only animals that sing, of course. The aforementioned coyotes do their thing sporadically all year long. Howling among canids has been studied, but zoologists still aren’t certain that they understand the meaning of these vocalizations. We’re sure that our dog did.

During an early morning hike across the desert, we heard a coyote howl some distance to our right. Moments later, a reply came from over on our left. Now, coyote choirs are no novelty to our dog, but in this case she received a hostile message. She stopped, muttered uneasily for a minute or so, and then turned around and headed for home. No matter how much we encouraged her to continue, she refused to budge. And when a 60-pound Doberman tells us that we’re going home, we go.

The music of coyotes carries for quite some distance, so when one of them sounds as though it’s tuning up right outside your window, more than likely it’s some ways away. The voices of some other species of mammals carry for tens, if not hundreds, of miles.

Whales “sing” to each other in highpitched, electronic-sounding voices that carry widely through the ocean. Perhaps it was this knowledge, or the increasing likelihood that these magnificent beasts could be hunted to extinction, or perhaps the haunting quality of a whale’s song that lured jazz saxophonist Paul Winter out onto the ocean to play jazz for the whales over underwater microphones.

Somehow, playing concerts for whales evolved into a whale/human collaboration. Recently we heard whale music – a melancholy blend of whale voices interwoven through the wistful notes of a flute – playing on the radio. Perhaps we cannot really talk to the animals or understand what they say in reply, but at a deeper level, communication does take place. We hear eloquent signals of the value of all creatures in this world of ours.


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