May 2, 2021 6:10:22 am
A major characteristic that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is language. We’re so proud of this that we’ve even begun teaching the brighter stars of the animal kingdom English, if not American Sign Language (ALS). There was Alex, the famous African grey parrot, the subject of a 37-year-old experiment, who was taught to “converse” in English (there have been several since he died), and the gorilla Koko, who was fluent in ASL and had an English vocabulary of over 2,000 words. Her last message to us was “man stupid” and “save Earth”. A bit far-fetched, but who knows. After all gorillas don’t go about hacking and burning rainforests and waging war, or spreading bat viruses, do they? Researchers have even tried to figure out whether animals have their own language.
All of last week, I have been eavesdropping on a pair of Indian mynahs. Perched on my bedroom window in the afternoon, they would be in a long-involved discussion. Since this is the breeding season, there could be a lot of lovey-dovey talk going on. What’s astonishing is how civilised the whole conversation is. One bird would chortle and chuckle and chirr, his or her crest rising with excitement, perhaps, and do a ludicrous little bow as if to ask, ‘what do you think?’. Then, after a moment’s silence, its partner would reply in the same totally civilised tone. To us, it may just seem like noise, but hey, that’s what most foreign languages sound like!
Here, apart from making soft declarations of love to one another, it seems like the pair are seriously discussing their future. They’re checking out locations for a nest, the supermarkets in the area, where they can get adequate stocks of worms and creepy-crawlies for the family, probably discussing how many babies they’d like for their first brood, or which flying school they ought to register at for admission, and when should the lady start laying. They never raise their voices, but there are inflections of concern, affection and even humour, obvious questions being asked, and reassuring replies given. Occasionally, they’d both fly off together, possibly to check out a nesting site and then return to resume their discussion. Sometimes, an almighty ruckus breaks out — obviously the couple has run into a gang of would-be hustlers trying to muscle in on the property they had set their hearts on. Mynahs love a scrap and can be pretty fierce, but they do their scrapping in the bazaar (and the cemetery next door) and certainly not on my window.
Mynahs as a family are pretty garrulous and this is not the first time I’ve noticed their penchant for civilised debate. I have a series of photographs of a pair of pied mynahs (aka Asian pied starlings) on a stalk. In the first, one bird is doing the talking while the other is listening carefully. In the second, the listener gives his or her reply and the talker listens, with his or her head cocked — paying full attention to what is being said. In the third picture, the original talker is obviously rebutting the argument again, but still in a totally civilised fashion and the rebutter is listening, perhaps, looking a little chastened. In the fourth, one has turned its face away from his or her partner. It’s an obvious, “agree to disagree” situation but see there’s no screaming or shrieking or fisticuffs. It’s civilised democracy and or an ideal marriage in action. I didn’t stick around to find out if there was any kiss-and-making-up afterwards, but I suspect there must have been!
Amongst the starling clan, rosy pastors (aka rosy starlings) are the other great chatterboxes. They’re migrants passing through Delhi on their way to their breeding grounds, and when in the trees, they cannot and will not stop chattering. They’ll take off en masse, and, in flight, maintain complete silence.
Parakeets are the other species with a wide and varied vocabulary in “Parakeetese”. Interestingly, both parakeets and mynahs are considered to be the best talkers in our languages too. Even crows, hoarse and crude though they might sound, can put soft inflections into their “caws”, making you wonder if they, too, have a vocabulary of their own.
When matters are urgent, birds understand one another’s languages. In some cases, the alarm is specific, indicating whether the threat is from the air (a raptor) or on the ground (a snake).
There’s so much we can pick up by just listening: it’s still possible to have civilised discussions with each other (especially on TV talk shows) instead of letting these degenerate into shrieking matches, where the next step is fisticuffs and strangulation. Ah, the mynahs find that very amusing — they’re back chuckling and chortling on the window.
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