Much to Crow About in Course on Animal Communication

By Cathy Cruise

Doris Bitler Davis

Mason psychology professor Doris Bitler Davis is fascinated by animal behavior and explored this interest with the students in her Psychology of Communication class. Photo courtesy of Doris Bitler Davis.

Doris Bitler Davis is not your typical animal lover. Sure, her menagerie at her small farm in Catlett, Va., includes three dogs, three goats, seven cats and nine chickens—and she’s planning on adding a few peacocks to the mix. But on a broader scale, Bitler Davis, a behavioral psychologist, is fascinated with animal behavior, and she explored this interest with students in her PSYC 406 Psychology of Communication course this spring.

To truly understand animals, Bitler Davis says, we have to move past some long-held beliefs about how different we are from them. “We didn’t pop out of the box with full-blown language,” she says. “It probably originated from things we’re seeing in other species. Dolphins have what we might call names—signature whistles they use to identify themselves and other dolphins. Even 20 odd years ago, we knew some species have very specific alarm calls that signal danger.”

Vervet monkeys, for instance, were one of the first species found to use precise cries to indicate whether a predator is, say, a snake, a leopard or an eagle. These alarms, Bitler Davis says, “look a lot like words. And we could accept that in monkeys because monkeys are kind of like us. But over the years, researchers found that chickens, for instance, have alarm calls that look like words. None of us think of ourselves as being much like a chicken, so we sort of had to drop the idea that we’re unique.”

Bitler Davis points to crows as the “stars” of animal intelligence and devotes a fair amount of the class to their study. The birds are extremely good problem solvers. She recounts one study in which researchers found that crows can identify human faces to determine threats. The researchers wore masks while they captured crows, and from then on, when they would walk by wearing the masks, “the crows would go crazy,” she says. But the truly fascinating thing was that the birds taught their offspring to be afraid of the mask wearers, too. “They saw their parents scolding when this person walked by, so they realized the person was bad,” she explains.

The class explores human communication as well, especially nonverbal messages transmitted through body language, gestures and facial expressions. It fulfills a synthesis requirement, and anyone can take the course as an elective. A large part of it revolves around field trips in which students observe animals in nature or naturalistic environments for four hours and record the results.

For a class assignment, Janet Olsen conducted

For a class assignment, psychology major Janet Olsen studied interactions between coffee shop customers and her own dog. Photo courtesy of Janet Olsen.

“They come back just kind of blown away,” Bitler Davis says, “because everybody’s been to the zoo, but nobody has actually sat and watched the interactions between the animals for an extended period of time.”

Samantha Colon, a senior from Puerto Rico earning a BA in psychology, studied the behavior of alpacas at a farm in Nokesville, Va. She was interested in interactions between older and younger animals and found that a 7-year-old matron, Eli, “seemed to be the anchor for the alpacas in her group,” Colon says. “They would roam around the pens but eventually come back as if to check in with her.”

Colon was surprised to note how the alpacas used their entire bodies to communicate and says she quickly discovered why females and males were separated in conjoined pens. The pregnant females kicked or spat at males that approached to drive them away. (Incidentally, there are two types of spit: a simple air and grass mixture, and a regurgitated stomach contents mix that, she was told by the farm owner, can be removed by “nothing but a long, hot shower.”)

Psychology major Janet Olsen, a junior, observed dogs at a “doggie daycare” center, and also studied interactions between customers and her own dog outside a coffee shop. Olsen says the class taught her that “we humans have been rather quick to say we’re the only ones that can communicate with each other. This class has definitely proven that is not true. I don’t think I will ever look at a crow the same way or really any other animal discussed in class. I think I will always be watching them to see if I can figure out what they’re trying to say.”

Such enhanced understanding of language and cognition among animals affords a broader comprehension of our world, and Bitler Davis hopes this inventive course will encourage lifelong learning, promoting ideas students will take with them into their jobs and daily lives.

“I hope when they take their kids to the zoo someday, they’ll spend a bit more time in front of an exhibit and have a little more appreciation for the wider world we live in,” she says. “Not just say, oh, there’s a lion or a tiger, but realize the world’s a big, complicated place and we’re only a small part of it.”