190316 crow caller
Indian expat Dushyant Soni convoking crows by imitating their voice in Dubai’s Al Mamzar neighbourhood. Image Credit: Pankaj Sharma/Gulf News

Dubai: At first they came in ones and twos, swooping low and gawking curiously at the blue-grey shirt figure below.

But as Dushyant Soni’s high-pitched caws pierced through the evening air in Al Mamzar, a whole murder of them emerged as if by magic.

Loud and raucous, they dotted the sky above us, flapping their wings and circling endlessly as Soni cranked up his vocal cords.

The Indian expat is among very few people in the world who has the rare ability to summon every crow within earshot by just imitating their voice.

“I discovered my talent when I was 12 years old,” Soni, now 46, recalled. “Those days we used to live in Mumbai. On a whim, one day, I mimicked the voice of some crows as they rummaged through leftover food in a neighbouring house overlooking my window. To my utter surprise, the crows cawed back,” said Soni, a jeweller by profession.

What started as a whim quickly turned into a passion. Over the next few years, Soni honed his craft to perfection.

“By the time I was 18, I had become famous in the neighbourhood as the crow-caller. My fame preceded me. Everywhere I went people would ask me to demonstrate my craft, They would gape in disbelief seeing crows respond to my calls,” said Soni, who moved to Dubai two years ago.

On a whim, one day, I mimicked the voice of some crows as they rummaged through leftover food in a neighbouring house overlooking my window. To my utter surprise, the crows cawed back.

- Dushyant Soni, Indian expatriate

Curiously, Soni’s wife Neha was not aware of her husband’s crow-calling skills until they went on a safari at a wildlife sanctuary in India’s westernmost state, Gujarat, six years ago. “We were in the middle of the forest when I cupped my mouth and made some crow calls in rapid succession. Within minutes, the sky was awash with hundreds of crows. She was impressed.”

Soni said making crow calls require a lot of action from a very small set of muscles and tissues in the mouth. “It’s quite demanding and puts a tremendous strain on my vocal folds so I have to keep them irrigated,” he explained, taking copious swigs of water from a large bottle.

According to him, patience and practice are paramount to learning the technique of convoking the birds. “Back home I would practise regularly but now my jewellery business doesn’t allow me enough time,” he said.

Apart from the famous caw-caw noise, crows emit a number of other sounds. Each one sends out a different message; for example, cawing can be used as a territorial warning — or a way for crows to signal their location to relatives.

Soni reckons the crows respond to his calls because they associate the sound to danger, and send out a warning call, called ‘scolding’, to alert their peers.

Kevin McGowan of Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, who has studied crows and their calls for decades, says there’s a lot in crow-speak that has to do with the timing of the notes, the space between them, and how quickly they are uttered

“There’s a call they give that says ‘heads up everybody, there’s a hawk.’ But they can also indicate ‘it’s getting closer, now we better hide.’ It’s the same word, but they speed up the ‘caw-caw-caw.’ Finally they change into a very different vocalisation, which means ‘hide,’” McGowan said.

According to McGowan, there’s a lot yet to learn about crow communication. New technology, ranging from GPS to directional microphones and acoustic computer algorithms, has the potential to vastly expand our understanding of what their lives are like, he said.

DID YOU KNOW?

Crows are so smart and so good at improvising that some zoologists admiringly call them “feathered apes”.