How I learned Ecology from the Rudeness of Crows

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By Jack Phillips

American crow. (Walter Siegmund)My cold morning walk in a wooded ravine drew insults from local crows. They began with the multiphonic croak-whistle, a sound made possible by unique avian anatomy that equips birds for producing multiple tones simultaneously. The first calls seemed to be a taunt and a test to see if I could somehow understand that the interval between the pitches was actually an opening into a primordial reality, something we call “nature.” I didn’t know what these crazy corvids expected me to do. They quickly added my lack of response to the mounting evidence for human ignorance and proceeded to demonstrate their vocal prowess with an impressive display of ridicule and rudeness.

The corvids (crows, ravens, jays and kin) are on to us. Many birds just try to keep their distance, but this clan gets in our faces. Local ravens were particularly meddlesome when I was staying in downtown Juneau. My friends and I often threw Frisbees at midnight (barely dusk in July) outside our hostel, which happened to be on raven turf. Like many urban gangs, Juneau ravens patrol territories. We were allowed a few tosses between attacks. No blood was spilled, but it was clear that we, along with other nonindigenous creatures, were barely tolerated.

This is not the case with native Alaskans. I learned this as my work took me to Tlingit villages through the Tongass region. Ravens and other wild creatures had long ago adopted the native humans. Every Tlingit family belongs to either the Raven or Eagle clans. At an intertribal gathering on Baronoff Island I saw dancers in costumes of raven, eagle and other Tlingit relatives. It was here that I was introduced to Inuit throat singing, the primal practice of singing with nature and with birds in particular. The ritual imitation of wild sounds cements animistic kinship, and the throat singers were able to mimic raven multiphonics, even though they lacked avian pipes.

Mammals have vocal chords; birds do not. Instead, they have a larynx that branches into two windpipes. This unique vocal organ is called a syrinx. The two pipes are heavily and intricately muscled and can be controlled independently to create distinct notes, sounds and voices of contrasting pitch and timbre. When we hear the coarse croak-whistle of a crow, or the buzz of a purple finch, we hear a space between the pitches; we are drawn into an opening framed in sound. Listen closely for the thin intervals in that interrupting buzz in the middle of the clear finch song, or in the raspy “dee-dee” that accompanies chickadee antics. By contrast, the loose call of the sandhill crane has room enough for creaks, coos, rattles and honks.

Multiphonic birds can be comic or crude, but the song of the veery is startling and beautiful. I first heard it one spring afternoon in a shallow valley in New England’s Taconic Mountains. As the valley gradually ascended and narrowed, the canopy closed above fresh ferns and mosses. As the veery’s paired notes spiraled downward—a clear chime an octave above a metallic flute—the forest opened before me. Pale beech and chalky-white birch framed doorways into shadows as my young son crawled between them to search the leaf litter for orange efts.

Most of us won’t learn throat singing or dance in raven costumes or chase juvenile newts. There is no need—just find a quiet place where you can immerse yourself in a measure of wildness. Every remnant native ecosystem preserves a primal reality. A winter walk reveals openings into that reality. Cold birdsong punches a hole in human ego. An opportunity appears—if I will only take it. But the crows remain skeptical.

 

Information on New Tree School may be found at newtreeschool.wordpress.com. Reach Jack Phillips at (402) 571-7460 or by emailing jack phillipsrca[at]gmail[dot]com.

Information on the Ecological Immersion Program is at www.pottco conservation.com. Click on one of the EIP links on the calendar on the bottom left for session information and cost. Space is limited. Student tuition discounts are available.

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