In his thought-provoking book, What the Robin Knows, naturalist Jon Young makes the case that bird utterances always have a communicative purpose. He sorts bird sounds into various categories, depending on by whom made, when, in what situation, and for what purpose. He readily concedes, however, that this purpose is by no means always obvious to us humans. In the case of crows and other corvids, he believes, their incessant cawing amounts to “disruption and mayhem for the sheer fun of it.” He says next to nothing about gulls, but after listening to this pair go at it on the north side of the park one recent afternoon, I wonder if the same disclaimer shouldn’t apply here as well. My 51-second video gives only a small slice of this conversation, if that’s what it was. The bird in the rear kept up its declamations for minutes at a stretch. The bird toward the front frequently turned its head toward the other, as if listening intently, and it occasionally joined in, with a voice pitched a bit lower, but only for a few seconds, as if making a brief comment on the other’s utterances. Was something being communicated? To my human ears, each gull word sounded identical to the preceding and the next. It reminded me not of conversation but of women keening in grief at the loss of a loved one. But scientists with advanced sound-analyzing equipment might be able to detect differences in the gulls’ words, perhaps in combination with their head movements, unlocking a deep communicative message. Or maybe this was a case where the bird didn’t have anything much to say, but just needed to vent, as we humans sometimes do. And perhaps the other responded with a brief empathetic “I hear you!” Will we ever know?
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