In his clever article "Has Success Spoiled the Crow?" David Quammen argues that the corvid family—which includes crows and ravens—may be too smart for its own good.
"For example," he writes, "they play a lot.
"Animal play is a reasonably common phenomenon, at least among certain mammals, especially in the young of these species. Play activities—by definition—are any that serve no immediate biological function, and which therefore do not directly improve the animal's prospects for survival and reproduction. The corvids, according to expert testimony, are irrepressibly playful. In fact, they show the most complex play known in birds. Ravens play toss with themselves in the air, dropping and catching again a small twig. They lie on their backs and juggle objects (in one recorded case, a rubber ball) between beak and feet. They jostle each other sociably in a version of 'king of the mountain' with no real territorial stakes. Crows are equally frivolous. They play a brand of rugby, wherein one crow picks up a white pebble or a bit of shell and flies from tree to tree, taking a friendly bashing from its buddies until it drops the token. And they have a comedy-acrobatic routine: allowing themselves to tip backward dizzily from a wire perch, holding a loose grip so as to hang upside-down, spreading out both wings, then daringly letting go with one foot; finally, switching feet to let go with the other. Such shameless hot-dogging is usually performed for a small audience of other crows.
"There is also an element of the practical jokester. Of the Indian house crow, Wilmore says: '. . . this Crow has a sense of humor, and revels in the discomfort caused by its playful tweaking at the tails of other birds, and at the ears of sleeping cows and dogs; it also pecks the toes of flying foxes as they hang sleeping in their roosts.' This crow is a laff riot. Another of Wilmore's favorite species amuses itself, she says, by 'dropping down on sleeping rabbits and rapping them over the skull or settling on drowsy cattle and startling them.' What we have here is actually a distinct subcategory of playfulness known, where I come from at least, as Cruisin' For a Bruisin'."
* * *
Do you have a favorite story about animal play?
pp. 33-34 of "Has Success Spoiled the Crow?"
in Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature
by David Quammen (NY: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1985)
The raven sang
two or three times a sweet melody.
Then she saw us.
She saw me, anyway, and stopped.
We were two artists, moving into the guest house for a two-week residency at Hubbell Trading Post. I heard unfamiliar birdsong and stepped outside to see who it was. A large raven was perched on a wooden electric pole.
It was 5 p.m. in late September, that hour before real dusk when ravens fly in ones and twos all in the same direction, calling. The raven looked down at me.
"Rwork," she said and flew west. But I was sure I had heard something else first.
That raven sang
two or three times a true melody.
I wanted to hear it again.
The same raven (or one like her) often perched on that pole near dusk during our residency. I listened as often as I could but only heard the usual range of raven evening talk, which is interesting in its own right.
Scientists have recorded over 80 distinct sounds made by ravens, though they currently believe an individual raven may use only about 20 of these on a regular basis. Sort of like I only use about 5,000 of maybe 100,000 words of common English.
Ravens have been credited with:
rrronk cluck rattle whine-thunk
caw squawk (low) honk (very rapid) rap-rap-rap
coo (long rasping) caw (nasal) honk cowp-cowp-cowp-uk
kruk (low, soft, murmur/ oo-oo (soft upward inflected) cheow
krrk whisper) km and mm knock (rapid) caulk-caulk-caulk-caulk
nuk cark pruk growl
Eighty distinct sounds—plus unexpected silence. Ravens seldom speak during the breeding season until the babies hatch, and they do not call out when a captive raven is set free.
Individual ravens are known to imitate: Other birds, a train whistle, radio static, a motorcycle being revved, urinals flushing, dogs barking (near and far away) and, in the Olympic National Forest, the sound of avalanche control explosions: "One – two – three – beccccchh." But the closest I found to music in the literature was a story by Jane Kilham, wife and colleague of corvid scientist Lawrence Kilham. She heard wild ravens make sounds "similar to spring water gurgling through a tube, so musical that she found it fascinating to listen to." Perhaps there was hope for me yet.
Then, one night, I saw a PBS Nova program called "A Murder of Crows." The narrator noted that, like ravens, crows have many words, such as different cries for cat, human, and hawk, with different levels of urgency for each. They also have what the narrator called two dialects—one familiar to us and raucous, the other for private family moments which is melodic and sweet. They played 13 seconds of crows murmuring in a nest near the University of Washington, and my heart jumped. Was I getting closer to hearing that music again?
Catherine Feher-Elston tells of a bird she rehabilitated who enjoyed a music box that played "the Neapolitan classic Torno a Sorrento." She lived in northern Arizona for a while, so maybe I had heard her rehabilitated bird at Hubbell, singing an Italian popular tune. But no—Feher-Elston's bird was also a crow. I want to respect differences between these two highly-intelligent species. Because, even within each group, there are wide variations, especially in vocabulary.
Lawrence Kilham quotes a 1922 observer as saying, "Nearly every raven I met has some note that is distinctive." The Yale team of Marzluff and Angell write that raven literature reports "many unique calls with distinct meanings." And Bernd Heinrich, well-respected author of Mind of the Raven, says, "We know infinitely less about vocal communication in ravens than. . .about the call of a frog, a cricket, or the zebra finch. . . . The more complex and specific a communication system becomes, the more random-sounding and arbitrary it will appear." All of which surely allows for the possibility of music, even in a gravel-voiced songbird, right?
Distinctive notes. Unique calls. "Unique" means one time only. So why do I ask for this raven gift again? To confirm what I know to be true?
As Craig Comstock, a raven-watcher in Maine said, "I understand the need for the scientific method, but there are times when nature speaks just once, and it is a loss not to listen."
I heard a raven
sing melody sweet and true
and I treasure it.
* * *
Have you had a unique experience you would like to share?
With gratitude to the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site
Artist-in-Residence Program, Ganado, Arizona.
Catherine Feher-Elston, personal communication.
Bernd Heinrich, Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds
(NY: Cliff Street Books, HarperCollins Publishers, 1999)
Lawrence Kilham, The American Crow and the Common Raven
(College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1989)
John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell, In the Company of Crows and Ravens
(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005)
PBS A Murder of Crows, video.pbs.org/video/1621910826
aired 24 October 2010
This month's Explorations blog has featured only one comment—VS's observation on post 2A that international agreements like the Shengen Agreement in Europe can help create peaceful borders. I agree. And I believe such agreements are essentially large versions of the kinds of conversation and cooperation that need to happen on any level to promote peace.
I suspect that few people have only one definition of peace, though they may have one that springs to mind most readily. Maybe this is a memory or dream of a quiet meadow by a stream or a sunny glade in some forest. For some, peace might be the elation of racing down a ski slope or the serenity referred to by R.J. Rummel in post 2C. These are internal, personal moments of feeling a sense of peace—often rare, welcome when they come.
Many cultures also place a high value on what the International Alert website (in post 2C) describes as "communities living together, side by side, and resolving their differences without resorting to violence." This value is called "living in harmony," and it does not happen unless people work at it.
Skills and attitudes that help build harmony and peace among people—whether they live together in a house, on a street, in a village, or some larger grouping—need to be learned then developed. Anyone can learn and practice them. One such skill is described by Thich Nhat Hanh in post 2B: Learning to see beauty as well as suffering. This is what people call a "practice," meaning it is a skill which can be practiced and deepened every moment.
Another skill that can be learned to help build harmony is openness to other ways of seeing and doing. People have different personalities, different ways of seeing and learning, different abilities. To be open to such differences, we can recognize them and be respectfully curious about them. When we are politely open to others, we learn new things. We do not need to adopt other ways, necessarily, but we can come to understand them better. If two people want to work together and their ways are very different, they might be able to invent a third way of doing something that works for both.
Openness and learning to see the beauty which is all around can help us live more peacefully day-to-day with ourselves and with those nearby. These are some of the skills which help pave paths toward peace.
Next month's topic will start on December 1st with a singing raven.
Years ago, I heard a lecture by a professor who asked men and women to define peace. She found that their meanings for this idea were generally quite different. It got me thinking.
Is peace the presence of something? Or is the absence of something?
Is it something people have together or when they are alone?
Is peace different for each person? Different from one culture to another?
Here is how International Alert, an activist peace group, talks about peace:
"Peace is just as much about communities living together, side by side, and resolving their differences without resorting to violence as it is about people signing a treaty or laying down their arms.
"Our mission is to build a more peaceful world by:
1. Working with people directly affected by conflict to find peaceful solutions
2. Shaping policies and practices to support peace
3. Collaborating with all those striving for peace to strengthen our collective voice and impact"
This group defines peace very comprehensively, including in it physical safety, social justice, and access to what humans need for wellbeing, such as food, water, education, and healthcare.
In a very different vein, here is how R.J. Rummel, a conflict resolution scholar, writes about peace:
Peace has always been among humanity's highest values--for some, supreme. Consider: "Peace at any price."1 "The most disadvantageous peace is better than the most just war."2 "Peace is more important than all justice."3 "I prefer the most unjust peace to the justest war that was ever waged."4 "There never was a good war or a bad peace."5
Yet, we agree little on what is peace. Perhaps the most popular (Western) view is as an absence of dissension, violence, or war, a meaning found in the New Testament and possibly an original meaning of the Greek word for peace, Irene. Pacifists have adopted this interpretation, for to them all violence is bad. This meaning is . . . the primary dictionary definition.
Peace, however, is also seen as concord, or harmony and tranquility. It is viewed as peace of mind or serenity, especially in the East. It is defined as a state of law or civil government, a state of justice or goodness, a balance or equilibrium of Powers.
Such meanings of peace function at different levels. Peace may be opposed to or an opposite of antagonistic conflict, violence, or war. It may refer to an internal state (of mind or of nations) or to external relations. Or it may be narrow in conception, referring to specific relations in a particular situation (like a peace treaty), or overarching, covering a whole society (as in a world peace). Peace may be a dichotomy (it exists or it does not) or continuous. . . . Christian, Hindu, or Buddhist will see peace differently, as will pacifist or internationalist. Socialist, fascist, and libertarian have different perspectives.
1. Alphonse de Lamartine, Meditations Poetiques (1820). 2. Desiderius Erasmus, Adagio. 3. Martin Luther, On Marriage (1530). 4. Cicero, Letters to Atticus. 5. Benjamin Franklin, Letter to Josiah Quincy (September 11, 1773). 6. Irenology = the scientific study of peace.
How do you think and feel about peace?
When you describe something as peaceful, what is it like?
Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk now based in Plum Village, France. Both in Vietnam and around the world he has seen great suffering, and still he finds ways to feel peaceful in the present.
"Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. To suffer is not enough. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. They are within us and all around us, everywhere, any time.
"If we are not happy, if we are not peaceful, we cannot share peace and happiness with others, even those we love. If we are peaceful, if we are happy, we can smile and blossom like a flower, and everyone in our family, our entire society, will benefit from our peace. . . . Wherever we are, any time, we have the capacity to enjoy the sunshine, the presence of each other, even the sensation of our breathing. We don't need to go to China to enjoy the blue sky. We don't have to travel into the future to enjoy our breathing. We can be in touch with these things right now. It would be a pity if we were only aware of suffering.
"If a child smiles, if an adult smiles, that is very important. If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it. This is the most basic kind of peace work."
pp. 3-5 in Being Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh
(Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1987, 1996)
What do you think about the idea that we can be peaceful
and smiling at the same time we are aware of suffering?
I was a US citizen just back from my first visit to Europe, but I had little to prove it. I officially entered the continent in Zurich, Switzerland, and I crossed into and out of France eight times in three places over my two week visit. But my passport was only stamped once when I arrived. I never had to fill out a form or declaration. No one asked where I had come from or where I was going. If officials checked my documents at all, they looked at the date or the photo or some thing unknown to me and blandly returned my little blue American passport book.
If an official checked my documents at all. When my host and I drove a rental car from Geneva to France on a rainy night, the border guard stood under the shelter of the bright checkpoint, talking with a colleague and rhythmically waving cars through. Driving back into Switzerland we did pause for a moment. The Swiss guard peered into our back seat, then gestured us on.
Even more striking was the train station. We rode the Swiss train to Basel, a large border city, then changed to a small French local which would take us into the farm country of Alsace. It was 7 p.m. Laden with suitcases full of gifts and hiking gear, we shuffled into a cavernous room leading out of Switzerland. There were no immigration officers behind the counters where such persons might have stood. We banged our loads through grey metal doors inscribed “FRANCE” and there was not an official soul in sight—just a few other travellers and a young worker in a neon blue jacket who helped us pick the right train.
Clearly we travelled between France and Switzerland as part of a bustling international traffic in wine, cheese, honey and chocolate, but there was no searching of baggage, no agriculture or liquor control. Switzerland and France both pride themselves on the high quality of their produce, their wines and cheeses, yet these standards are apparently enforced somewhere other than in the hands of consumers.
France is a member of the European Union and Switzerland is not. The two countries have different currencies, different laws, different forms of government, different immigration policies. Switzerland shares borders with Germany, Austria, Lichtenstein, and Italy as well as with France, and France borders Belgium and Germany, Luxembourg, Italy and Spain. Historically, relations among some of these nations have been quite strained. Yet I was passing back and forth between two of them in an atmosphere of benign nonchalance that struck me as the truest kind of security and of peace.
I travelled in Europe for two weeks and never had to fill out a form, I said. This was not literally true. To get on my flight out of Zurich, I was ushered down a special corridor which ended at screening portals and suitcase x-ray machines familiar to anyone who has travelled around the United States. The US officer who checked my ticket and passport handed me several forms. I was going home.
* * *
Have you had experience with surprising forms of
security or peace?
As a reader, I like essays and novels that are informed by ideas. Annie Dillard. Michael Ondaatje. I am hoping here to join others who feel the same. I look forward to thoughtful conversations!