Do Animals Talk?
Nature Bulletin No. 635 April 1, 1961
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Daniel Ryan, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist
DO ANIMALS TALK
Amateur bird fans are not all bird watchers. Some of us are bird
listeners. In the forest preserves and rural regions, the big black noisy
crow is a continual challenge. At the first light of dawn an evenly
spaced "caw, caw, caw" seems to say "Hello! Is anybody awake?" Soon
it is answered by sleepy crow voices. They have food calls, assembly
calls, alarm calls, courtship calls and a lot of squabbling over roosting
spots as they settle down for the night. The adults are very quiet near
the nest but the fledglings make loud gargling sounds as they are fed.
The discovery of an owl or cat sets off a sort of mob hysteria. By
hiding a microphone among a flock of crows it has been found that
they also talk in whispers.
Animals do not have a true language even though they can
communicate with one another by sounds and gestures. Each kind has
a certain number of inborn signals for expressing its feelings but these
are not words. All human infants laugh or cry to express their
emotions without being taught. Their language must be laboriously
learned, one word at a time. A baby chick hatched in an incubator and
reared away from all other chickens makes the same calls and behaves
the same as chicks hatched and reared by a hen. The only noticeable
difference is that young cockerels learn to crow sooner and better when
they can hear an old rooster.
Some apes can utter as many as thirty different sounds which a patient
trainer can learn to understand. They seem to be on the verge of true
speech. They also use many different facial expressions, postures and
movements much as we smile, shrug our shoulders or point a finger.
Still, these are instinctive actions -- not learned. An ape reared alone
from birth to the age of five years was able to express itself in ape
language just as well as any other ape of that species.
Dogs bark, growl, snarl, whine and howl. In addition, they bare their
teeth, lift a paw, wag the tail, lay back their ears or raise their hackles.
They are very expert at reading their owner's intentions from his slight
unconscious actions. A dog lies quietly while his master goes outside
for a short errand, but comes bouncing with anticipation if an
afternoon walk is intended. Contrary to the beliefs of many pet owners,
a dog does not respond to the actual words spoken so much as the tone
of voice used. If you say in a cheerful voice: "I'm going to beat you",
he will wag his tail. In a gruff voice say "I've got a nice bone for you",
and he will put his tail between his legs. Dogs have a keen sense of
smell and on a trip around the block they act like they were reading
the evening paper.
so common among domestic animals and zoo animals, is
practically unknown among adult wild animals. It seems to be learned
through contact with man. A horse whinnies for hay, a cat mews to
have a door opened, an elephant asks for peanuts with his trunk, and a
giraffe with the tip of his tongue, while a dog begs for companionship
and to have his ears scratched.
Captive birds such as parrots, parakeets, mynah birds, blue jays and
crows can be taught to talk -- sometimes only a word or two,
sometimes long sentences. It is clear mat these words have no meaning
to the bird. Starlings, mocking birds, brown thrashers and catbirds do
not have a complete set of calls of their own. Instead they sing a
medley of songs copied from other birds.
Wild ducks and geese have a variety of special calls. The mallard hen,
for example, gives a rapid "tuckata-tuckata-tuckata" in the presence of
feed. A series of loud descending quacks -- termed the "hail call" -- is
given by undisturbed groups when loafing is safe. A low single
"whank" puts a flock to flight. The feeding and hail calls are imitated
by hunters to lure mallards to the gun.
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Update: June 2012