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What Time Does The Cock Crow?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Rooster, by raymondgobis/Flickr

Ed. Note: Long time readers are well aware that I have a quirk about Time. You can read my other discussions here.

The Experience of Time

Time is a measure of events, duration, and change. Thanks to Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) we share a basis for discussing Time. It helps structure our expectations. I may be at my desk by 9:00 EST (UTC-05:00), but I understand that colleagues in California (UTC-08:00) are likely still in bed. Global clock time tells me that at 11:00 EST, I can reasonably expect them to be at their desks. However, our experiences with Time may differ in accordance with local observances even along the same latitude. While it may indeed be five o’clock somewhere, what people may choose to do at that Time may differ greatly from place to place. The meaning of five o’clock can vary greatly.

The example I often use when discussing these sorts of differences stems from an experience I had in South Florida when I found that my “meal clock” didn’t align with local business practices. In New York City, diners might be sitting down to an early dinner at 6:00 pm, whereas in parts of South Florida, the dinner hour is winding down. We may share the same time zone, but our temporal tendencies differ.

Despite the standardization offered by the clock, Time is an intersubjective experience. Though we don’t often consider it, local contexts can inform our temporal awareness in subtle ways. For example, consider the role roosters have played in keeping time:

The use of cockcrows in the predawn period to reckon time is extremely widespread, and has been ethnographically documented. The Bororo of Brazil keep track of time after midnight through the gradual increase in intensity and frequency of crows between the first cockcrow and dawn; the Ifugao of the Philippines state that cocks crow four times during the night with the third cockcrow at around four o’clock in the morning; and among the Saramaka, a maroon group in Surinam, cockcrow is an auspicious time for sharing secrets in the predawn hours.[i]

While it’s true that roosters can indeed crow at any time, in a recent paper anthropologist Kevin Birth discusses how avian chronobiology shapes a reliable relationship between cockcrow and the coming dawn that may help understand perceptions of time prior to the establishment of a standard global time.

A Religious Calling

Archaeological evidence reveals an abundance of domestic fowl in the Middle Ages, and for a sustainable community to have existed breeding would be have been necessary which would have required roosters—who appeared to have a prominent role in calling practitioners to predawn devotions. In the 6th-century, cockcrow constituted one of the four periods of nighttime devotion for monasteries that followed the precepts maintained by the Rule of the Master (Regula Magistri), which required psalms be said at nightfall, midnight, cockcrow, and in the morning. The period denoted by the rooster’s crow helped manage devotions in the face of seasonal changes: psalms were said prior to the cockcrow in the winter, and after the cockcrow in the summer to account for the shifting durations of darkness. Roosters also alerted those living beyond the immediate reach of religious orders to ready themselves for morning devotions with their noisy pronouncements.

The connection between the rooster and the coming dawn offered fertile ground for associations with light and spirituality. Gregory the Great likened roosters to preachers:

First, like roosters, preachers strive against darkness to account approaching light. Second, they awaken the sluggish. Just as cocks’ understanding penetrates the darkness, so should the knowledge of teachers. Also, Gregory states that cocks are louder in the darkness and more gentle as dawn approaches, and he says that this is a metaphor for how preachers should treat people—those who are in darkness receive harsher messages, while those who are approaching spiritual enlightenment should hear the “subtlest mysteries.”[ii]

The cockcrow was a temporal signifier in the Middle Ages, but is there any biological basis for these sorts of connections?

Do Roosters Crow at Dawn?

Sure they do! Chickens have a circadian cycle. They’re entrained to light-cycles—melatonin secretion, and regulation of the heart, brain, and liver change in response to light. For roosters, whose crows are driven by testosterone, light cycles which regulate endogenous cycles can also trigger crowing behavior.

Endogenous cycles in chickens can reset in response to incremental changes in light intensity. Gambian hens, for example, shift their roosting times in accordance with the seasons: since the days are relatively the same length, the chickens appear to negotiate roosting in relation to shifting light intensity.  Chickens, then, are able to anticipate light cycles. Research done in North-Central India, where the sun only becomes visible after it has risen higher than surrounding mountains, documents the onset of crowing approximately two to three hours before sunrise with initial intervals of about 30 minutes that decrease to about seven minutes at the time of sunrise—even though the sun is not actually visible at the moment of sunrise.

But roosters also crow at other times and for different reasons. Birth acknowledges they’re only temporally relevant during the period of predawn for a specific location—but they are an excellent means of generating contextually-relevant information.

So, Are We More “Timely” Now?

Here’s the thing: We’ve been trying to divide the day into equal hours since at least the 3rd-century BC by using candles and water clocks to mark the passage of Time. Clocks and universal time codes aren’t a modern marvel. Birth states these attempts represent abstract, context-independent ways of managing time, whereas the rooster’s crow is an example of context-dependent ways of understanding time. The latter requires multiple temporal indicators—because cockcrow is only relevant during a specific period—requiring multiple experiences and measures of duration and change.

Time in the Middle Ages was not wrong, nor were predawn measurements by cockcrow without relevance. Birth traces an interesting shift in the relationship to Time held by medieval and moderns with regard to the senses. Namely, Time in the Middle Ages was linked to sound—roosters can be pretty noisy. Church bells, by the way, heralding the start of mass, were meant to be heard. Sound travels. It would find you. Whether you were in the field or on the road, you could not mistake the meaning of bells, whistles, or crowing. But that changed when Time shifted to visual cues: Clock towers required you to come to them. Clock towers represented a physical reminder of shared Time, minimizing an awareness of how the experience of 5 o’clock might differ along the same time zone.

Context-dependent time takes into account the local environment, whereas clock time creates an arbitrary relationship to the local experience. Birth proposes that the rise of clock time is tied to a preference for measuring Time in terms of “abstract durations of equal length”.[iii] As Time became commoditized with the rise of the Industrial Revolution, it was far more appealing (and arguably important) to control Time than it was to indexically define Time. And how better to control Time than to divide it up and put it in the hands of people? Who here is wearing a watch or has checked the display of their phone for the time today? Time is within your reach! And it is probably easier to manage than a belligerent rooster. Imagine putting that in your pocket.

 



Reference:
Birth, K. (2011). The Regular Sound of the Cock: Context-Dependent Time Reckoning in the Middle Ages KronoScope, 11 (1), 125-144 DOI: 10.1163/156852411X595305

Citations: [i]p 127 | [ii]p 134 | [iii] P138

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. rlseaman 6:53 pm 12/13/2011

    Various anthropological implications of time are implicit in the preprints for “Decoupling Civil Timekeeping from Earth Rotation”:

    http://futureofutc.org/preprints

    This was an excellent meeting that has produced insightful papers and intriguing discussions on an obscure topic. If the International Telecommunication Union votes to redefine UTC in January, the topic won’t remain obscure.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Carl Hendershot 2:30 am 12/27/2012

    Roosters crow anytime they like. On the hour if you do not make dinner of it.

    Link to this

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