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THE CORVIDEAN MILLENNIUM; OR, LETTER FROM AN OLD CROW PAUL SHEPARD* I can now give you some information about the situation in my home town ofGalesburg since it was taken over by crows some years ago. The exact circumstances ofthe beginning are still hazy. Apparendy the crows arrived with some preconceived plan and inveigled their way into the political system. Once they obtaineda majority ofthe vote, they organized a bureaucracy for systematically converting the society into one like their own. I gather it was to be a kind ofpilot project. I was away at the time. However, I have been on friendly terms with crows elsewhere and it was just this friendship which enabled me to see and copy the following letter: "Dear Cousin, From the moment ofour arrival the task of transforming them fell heavily upon us. But at last leisure is reappearing and it is possible to report to you on the events ofthe past few years. Fortunately we are relentless by nature—thanks to centuries of harassing owls—and ultimate success is inevitable, though fraught with fantastic problems and danger. We began where individual habits are formed: in the personal and family life. As you know, humans have the disadvantage ofnever living in an egg. It surprised some ofus in the beginning to find, with all the helter-skelter oftheir lives during which the unborn is carried internally here and there and everywhere that it is willing to come out at all. "Luckily, we found some common ground in related matters, such as the keeping ofa household. Although they had transferred to artificial caves, they do have an ancient tradition ofnest-building by virtue oftheir primate connections. It was you, I believe, who once called to my atten- * Department ofBiology, Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois. This paper was given as a Mortar Board "Last Lecture" at Knox College, December 4, 1962. It is based in part on work supported by P.H.S. M6639(A). 33I tion the goodsensedisplayed by the chimpanzeesand gorillas incontinuing this practice in a fashion more nearly like us. "The very young are naked as our own are at first, but one waits in vain for the first handsome feather tracts to appear. Instead they develop rows of teeth, enough like ghostly grains of corn to make a sensitive crow shudder. Unfortunately, itwilltake many generations ofselective breeding to rectify this weakness in their mammalian heritage. "The young call instinctively for food as do our young. They are great imitators and learners of words. This trait is so common in them that one ofthe first questions we often ask about a young human is, 'Does it talk?' It usually does, becoming progressively verbose all its life, mimicking phrases ithas heard and gabbling at a greatrate about matters onwhich it is ignorant. "Itwas through the main Sub-committee on the Improvement ofCommunication (ofwhich I was co-chairman for the first three years) that we undertook to improve the situation. Naively we attempted at first to show the superiority of our own system. We outlined the repertoire of some 30-odd instinctive calls, listing opposite each its communications function and the particular conditions, both physiological and external, which released it. My associates expected that they would see the advantage ofan explicit and irrevocable meaningforeachphrase, thewrangling, misunderstanding , and confusion it would put to rest, and the beauty ofan inborn system ofsounds for all the major communications. "When this failed we attempted to excite human interest by alluding to the habit we share with them ofsound mimicry. This was to gently elucidate the biological value ofmimicking, provided it is not allowed to become a verbal epidemic. We explained the role ofmimicry in developing local dialects, so that individuals may recognize their own subgroup at a distance and be spared the exposure ofa social error. A special project was established by local civic clubs for training their children in our signals . But as the range ofsound frequencies produced by crows was greater than their range, their young were handicapped. Then a pioneering experimental operation at the local research hospital crowned the project with success by showing that splitting their tongues greatly increased the number ofCorvidean consonants their young could say...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 331-342
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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