Corvid-Human speech

I happened to overhear some crows in my yard this morning, and I eavesdropped their conversation as they picked through the birdseed. I was struck by some of the vocalizations I heard, some that fell beyond the normal loud squawky caws and alarms and that sounded much less birdlike in their pace and tone. Not a high pitch that is probably impossible for any normal person to emulate, let alone hear, but a low grumbling tone about the same pitch as a cat’s or small dog’s growl. We all know parrots can emulate human speech, but there are cases in many other species of birds, including crows, of individuals replicating our vocalizations.
I would imagine that more than ever crows are within earshot of human speech. What if there are several generations of a population (murders) that live the majority of their lives under such conditions? Will enough of the birds pick up on human speech in order for their offspring to learn it from their parents, even if all the human sources ceased before their hatching? Can they understand any of the human intent in the words?
I think it’s likely that at minimum they will integrate the words by a common understanding among the population, and perhaps by chance they will assign a definition to their word which we can recognize as based on our definition. And if there is some measure of genuine understanding on both sides, then you might wonder whether that is some sort of positive quality, a function of the conditions of each population. That would imply a common element to speech between crows in humans, in this case manifested by one adapting and changing in response to the other, while the larger population forces an ever increasing overlap.


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June 2010
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