Just back in the country, still half on Bangladesh time, I found myself wide awake at 5:30 a.m. and thought I might as well go downstairs and work on my Mongolian monument-in-progress. Then I heard the crow.
He was the loudest performer in the dawn clamor of birdcall, but I noticed him not because of his volume but because of his sense of number. He gave three caws, no more, no fewer. Then he paused for maybe a minute and gave three caws again.
It was always three. Over and over, like an Allied radio operator sending out a coded signal to agents behind enemy lines only able to tune in for a few seconds before the Gestapo showed up and broke down the door. Caw, caw, caw. Caw, caw, caw.
Why three, I wondered. At this time of year it’s probably not a nesting call or a flocking call, so presumably it’s a mating call. But what is attractive about three calls? And why always three? Birds are well known to work a surprising number of variations on their basic patterns, perhaps to stand out from the crowd. Was this crow hoping a female crow would admire his endurance and consistency? “Can’t say I’m impressed by his vocal stylings, and heaven knows, he has the color sense of Henry Ford, but he’ll be a good provider, and that’s what counts.”
So this was running through the back of my mind as I painted away, carefully filling the loops and curious thorny branches of the ancient text, when after a while I realized he was now cawing in groups of four. Caw, caw, caw, caw. Caw, caw, caw, caw.
This struck me as pretty odd. If the number three was important, what was it about the number four that was more important? And if consistency was important, as the repetition suggested, why abandon it for some other number? And was it significant that it was a higher number? Was he second-guessing himself, anticipating the female crows mocking him for being such a dullard, and trying to denote that yes, he was capable of consistency but he also had ambition, that as the crow flies, he was a crow who was going places?
The four-pattern repeated itself over and over, and a strange thought began growing in my mind. What if he were working up through the numbers? Was he going to move up from four at some point and start cawing in fives? No, that was absurd. It would imply that the crow could count.
Not count objects, necessarily, nor understand the theory of number, but that he would have a kind of rhythmic awareness that allowed him to add another beat. In fact, maybe that’s where our own sense of number came from–not from counting our fingers but from our inherent, heart-and-lung-and-walking-feet-driven sense of rhythm that gave us a pulse–and at some point we became aware of that pulse as a series of separate strokes?
I didn’t really believe this at all, and I certainly didn’t believe it of a crow, but before I knew it, there he was, cawing in fives. Caw, caw, caw, caw, caw. Over and over. At no point did he revert to three or four, or even two or one. He was a crow with a sense of purpose: he was going somewhere with this vocal pattern, and it was starting to be only a question of how far he would go.
This was getting seriously interesting or seriously strange. I knew that crows, like all corvids, are among the most intelligent animals on earth, capable of using objects such as sticks as tools, and so on, but I couldn’t believe their intelligence had been measured by zoologists whose tests included math. Committing myself to the lowest standards of research, I went to Wikipedia, which told me that crows have been known to collect nuts too tough to open, fly over to a busy street, drop them on the road and wait for a vehicle to come along and do the hard work for them. This is impressive as an evolutionary survival skill, but counting? What is the survival value of having–and broadcasting the fact that you have–a basic understanding of numbers?
Wikipedia also announced that crows’ vocalizations “are complex and poorly understood” and included “counting out numbers,” but the phrase was so poorly constructed I wasn’t sure if it meant “delivering an evenly-paced series of caws as if counting,” or “delivering a repeated quantum of caws as if aware that each cluster contained the same number of utterances,” or (and I seriously doubted this one) “delivering caws in groups that increased in number by one.” Really, a crow could have written a better sentence.
My crow, meanwhile, had now gone off the IQ charts and was going “Caw, caw, caw, caw, caw, caw.” Seriously. He was up to six. I stopped painting to pay attention. Six, six six–and then, just once, he went back to five.
At once, he resumed his groups of six, but now a whole new set of questions arose. Had he simply been distracted, like a knitter getting a phone call, and lost count? Had he temporarily lost confidence in his ability to sustain groupings of this size, and faltered? Or had he reached the limits of his sense of number? After all, we humans do the same: our ability to remember numbers falls off dramatically if the number consists of more than seven digits. And I seem to recall from my reading of the Guinness Book of Records at the age of ten (yes, we’re still setting a low bar for our standards of research, here) that there’s a tribe in New Guinea who count only as far as three, possibly because their word for three (which as I misrecall is something like iepivngrwtigrwphgcnptirhnlvirsthlisrhtclsiruhlirtncligig) is so long they’d die of old age if they tried to count any higher.
As if to confirm this last suspicion, or possibly to announce that dawn was now over and day was underway, my crow abruptly stopped. I must say, I’m glad: if he had kept going to, say, eleven, or sixty-eight, I would have been so unnerved I’d have lost my ability to concentrate. In fact, I’d probably have given up Endangered Alphabets altogether and joined my near-neighbor Bernd Heinrich in bird research.
I was, however, struck by one last idea. (I think that’s six ideas I’d been struck by, so far, but by now I’ve lost count.) I had always assumed the band Counting Crows intended its name to imply a human in the act of enumerating corvids–and once again, my trusty mentor Wikipedia states that the phrase comes from a traditional rhyme: “One crow means sorrow, two crows mean joy, three crows a wedding, four crows a boy, five crows mean silver, six crows mean gold, seven crows a secret that’s never been told.” Note that this folk-rhyme or children’s rhyme stops at seven, the number that is neurologically the limit of our numerical comfort zone. My crow was only one short of the human limit.
Now I can’t help thinking of the band differently, not as Counting Crows but as Counting Crows. I see them on stage, all in black, maybe wearing cloaks. The lights come up. The drummer raises his sticks. He croaks out the count-in: “One, two, three, four….”