Skip to main Content

Listen to animals. They can speak volumes without needing words.

  • Author: John Schandelmeier
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: December 3, 2018
  • Published December 3, 2018

A raven calls out while perched on the roof of the Northway Mall. (Bob Hallinen / ADN archives)

I recently listened to a radio interview with a guy who mentioned that his parrot could communicate with him. The interviewer pooh-poohed the man. Birds can’t communicate with us because they can’t understand abstract concepts, the parrot owner was told.

Maybe. Or possibly it’s the humans who can’t understand the simplified thoughts of the animal mind?

We are enthralled by the dog who has more than a thousand word concepts at his disposal. That is amazing, but it’s not really communication. That dog has extraordinary intelligence with an awesome ability to learn. Communication is more of a two-way street.

Ravens are masters at communicating with each other. They can use their beaks and even sticks to point out interesting things to other ravens. They can make “toys” to play with one another. That demonstrates an obvious intelligence.

That brainpower carries over into their interactions with other animals. Ravens imitate wolf howls and fox cries to bring predators to large carrion they cannot break open on their own.

It seems a no-brainer that any successful animal species must necessarily learn to communicate among themselves. It is not much of a stretch of intelligence for animals, such as ravens, to convey their needs to other species. Food and survival are great motivators.

Webster’s defines “communication” as using words, sounds, signs or behaviors to exchange information or share ideas. Science has demonstrated that this definition is outdated.

A team from the University of Washington and Carnegie Mellon University recently demonstrated successful brain-wave communication. Their experiment was far from the first to make the connection. Four years ago, researchers in India were able to document transmission of thoughts by brain wave to a college in France 5,000 miles away.

None of these ground-breaking experiments will come to much of a surprise to dog owners. Who among us has not heard stories of the dog who anticipates his owners arrival at home — even when the homecoming does not occur at a regular time?

How do they do that? Brainpower. Maybe it doesn't even take high power, just normal communicative techniques that people don't yet understand.

There was a dog in our kennel, Candle, who could take unspoken directional commands with better than 90 percent accuracy. Many times Candle’s ability to respond to nonverbal commands was tested by nonbelievers. He always came through.

We would give the doubter a diagram of our trail system and tell them to draw the route they wished to take. I used care not to give cues with the brake on the sled. With Candle in the lead I would “think” him through the route. It was rare for him to make a mistake.

Candle performed as well on trails unknown to either of us. He was not a dog that I was especially close with. He was a dog’s dog. However, no one else was able to make that connection with him. And I have not had another dog that I could repeat the phenomena with.

Canine researchers tell us that animals communicate through vocalization, scent and body language. It may not end there.

A hunting partner and I witnessed a striking example of thought conveyance between two moose one fall. A cow and a small bull were laying on opposite ends of a swamp. Due to the wind direction, the cow was aware of our presence. The bull was not. The cow did not seem nervous about us, but after five minutes or so, she got to her feet and walked to the bull a couple hundred yards off. He stood at her approach and the cow stopped 10 feet away. They stared intently at each other for about a minute. Both moose then turned and looked in our direction. They looked back at each other, then trotted off at medium speed.

Anecdotal evidence. Experienced hunters will caution you never to look directly at the animal you are stalking. Native whalers have been telling researchers facts about whales for years. Many years and many thousands of research dollars passed before science confirmed bowhead facts the local folks already knew.

Relatively recently scientists discovered that the common pigeon can see ultraviolet light. Pigeons also navigate by using the earth’s magnetic field. These are things we can’t see. Animal communication by thought is an old concept that many nonscientific accounts have confirmed but is tough to put our finger on.

Where additional study will lead is unknown. However, it seems clear that humans can not be limited to a boxed definition of communication using only visible physical attributes.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.