Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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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.

Begging, 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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