Many people have described situations in which they believe they have had “conversations” with crows, which refers to a back-and-forth exchange of vocalizations. Do you believe that crows are aware of our vocalizations at them and our attempts to vocalize back at them?
The development of ritualistic behavior is fairly common when a person and a crow interact on a regular basis (typically because the person consistently provides food for the crows). This is especially true when the behavior is rewarded with food. I’m not sure if crows perceive our vocalizations as an attempt at communication, but they could interpret them as the first step in a series of steps that culminates in their being fed. They are vocalizing back to the person because the last time they attempted communication, the person fed them afterwards.
When feeding “their” crows, should people make a distinctive sound to identify themselves?
It certainly wouldn’t hurt to try it out. Crows are intelligent animals, and they will quickly learn to associate the sound of “their” person’s call with the arrival of food. This would allow the person to call the crows to them even if they were a long distance away.
Do crows make noises in order to attract the attention of their human food providers? Is it possible that these sounds are specifically for them (such as a specific name or greeting)?
Yes, crows will undoubtedly attempt to attract the attention of their feeder by making noises. In fact, I have a flock of crows that regularly visit my office window, and they’ve learned that if they give me a rattle call, I will feed them (this is actually because I’m frequently too preoccupied with my computer to notice them unless they call). I believe it is possible to send a personalized greeting, but I am not certain.
Crows’ sounds will tell you if you’re in or out of favor.If a crow starts scolding you, you can be sure that it believes you are a threat. Crows have the ability to describe specific people to other crows.
It is not possible for them to do so directly through vocalizations (for example, “the dangerous human has black hair and a red shirt”), but they can do so indirectly through other means. As soon as they come across a potentially dangerous person, they vocalize their presence (“danger here”) to alert others of the danger. When other crows arrive, they pay attention to what the calling crow does in order to determine which person is potentially dangerous (the screaming bird is divebombing the black-haired human with the red shirt; I better remember him).
Communication between crows and other animals
Do crows listen in on other birds’ conversations in order to gain new information? Yes. A crow’s response to the alarm calls of other birds can provide information about the location of a predator.
Crows can communicate with each other and with other corvids. In response to the alarm calls of other corvids (for example, it is quite common in Seattle for a Steller’s jay to find a sleeping owl, wake it up, and then attract a mob of crows), crows will gather in large groups.
Is there any evidence that they pay attention to mammals? What if a squirrel sounds an alarm and they respond, and vice versa?
I’m not aware of any studies that have looked into whether or not crows respond to the alarm calls of other animals, including humans. As a result of their vocalizations, crows are likely to be able to distinguish between certain species of mammalian predators (such as wolves, raccoons, and squirrels), but I am not aware of any studies that have looked into this.
Communication between crows
Do individual crows have distinct vocalizations (such as names) for one another? I’m not sure, but there are some interesting anecdotal stories that might shed some light on the situation. Pet ravens who have learned to imitate human speech will yell their own name when they are looking for their owner when they are separated. This suggests that, while the human is responsible for naming the bird, the raven is responsible for naming the pair bond that exists between them.
Is there a difference in Crow dialects depending on where you live? If this is the case, what kind of spatial scale do we use to define a region? Would crows from different geographical regions respond the same way to calls from outside their own region?
This is most likely due to ancestral hybridization with Northwestern crows, which occurred west of the Cascade Mountains (their calls are harsher and lower pitched) than American crows throughout the rest of the country (their calls are higher pitched).
Whether American crows have dialects in the same way that “traditional” songbirds (such as song sparrows) do is something I’m not familiar with. In Oklahoma, I tried playing back alarm calls that I’d recorded in Seattle, and the Oklahoma crows responded in the same way that the Seattle crows did (I didn’t have the opportunity to try other types of calls while I was in Oklahoma).
How much variation is there in the way different crows sound compared to one another? Is it distinct enough to be recognized as such?
Due to the large amount of variation in crow vocalizations, it was extremely difficult to interpret my results. There is evidence, however, that this variation is distinct enough to allow for individual identification in some instances. 1
A crow’s call
What is the maximum number of different sounds that a crow can make? More than the majority of people believe. However, in addition to their loud caws, they will make rattles, growls, coos, and other strange sounds as they go about their daily lives. They are also good mimics, and they can learn to imitate the vocalizations of other animals if given the opportunity (including people).
Is there a reference library that describes the various calls and what they mean in detail?
The Macaulay Library has a large collection of crow recordings, but I am not aware of any libraries that make an attempt to explain what the calls mean (mostly because we have no idea what most crow calls are saying).
Does the number of caws in a sequence have any significance?
We don’t know what to say. They are probably significant, but only as a single component among a large number of other factors.
Is there anything we don’t already know about Crow Syntax?
Unfortunately, it’s next to nothing. Nevertheless, we do understand that structured calling employs layered repetition in the sense that caws are repeated several times in a sequence and sequences are repeated over the course of several minutes.
Can you tell the difference between males and females based on their calls?
However, there is evidence that crows can distinguish between male and female calls, which I am unable to confirm.
Do they learn their fundamental vocal sounds from a vocal tutor (like other songbirds) or are they born with them? I’m not aware of any studies that have looked into this, nor am I aware of any that have done so.
Do crows ever communicate with themselves? In other words, do you make sounds that are not intended for the ears of other crows? Young crows will “babble” to themselves in hushed tones. It has been my experience that captive crows will utter very quiet notes when there are no immediate neighbors around, but because there were other crows in the vicinity, it is impossible to say with certainty that they were talking to themselves.
A single sound was described in a variety of ways by different people. Some described it as clicking, others as knocking, and still others as the sound made by the Predator. I’m guessing you’ll recognize it as the rattle call. What does it mean, by whatever name you choose to describe it with?
Generally speaking, scientists refer to it as the “rattle call” (for those who haven’t heard it, it really does sound like the predator’s rattling growl from the 1987 film Predator). Unfortunately, we are unable to determine what it means. There is evidence to suggest that this sound is only made by female crows.
So, what exactly are the soft “wow/hoo/wah” calls signaling?
We don’t know what to say. It has been described in a number of scientific papers, but the authors of those papers are also baffled as to what it means.
Have you ever heard them make a phone call that sounded like a single “beep” sound? If so, you’re not alone. Do you have any idea what it means?
Unfortunately, I have not been able to hear them make this noise. Crows are excellent mimics; it’s possible that what you heard was a crow imitating something else.
Is it possible for you to tell me what the “Gah” sound means? Unfortunately, this is not the case.
Do you understand what they’re saying when they puff up and bow their heads and make a “rah RAH” sound?
It appears that you are describing a vocalization that I labeled as “medium call” in my paper, which you can find here (the puffed-up bowing display is commonly done with this call). I believe it is a territorial call because when I played it back to the crows who were listening, they became agitated and responded with their own territorial calls and displays of dominance.
Do crows make predator-specific calls, such as chickadees or prairie dogs, or do they make general calls?
We don’t believe they have species-specific calls in the same way that prairie dogs do, but there is evidence that they call louder and faster around more dangerous predators (such as hawks) in a manner similar to how chickadees make more “dee” notes to denote relative danger.
Is it possible for crows to imitate human voices? Is it possible for a wild crow to learn to mimic human voices, or is it only possible for captive crows to learn?
Crows are capable of imitating human speech, but I would expect only captive crows to be able to do so in this situation. Hand-reared captive crows typically perceive themselves as individuals and form attachments to their keepers in the same way that they would with a mate. Wild crows would not have the same exposure or motivation as domesticated crows would.
Is it possible for wild crows to imitate non-human sounds? (other birds, car alarms, etc.). If so, what is the reason for this?
They have the ability to imitate a variety of other sounds. I’m not sure what their motivation is for doing so, but I’m guessing it has something to do with social interaction (either through play behavior or impressing a prospective or current mate).
The investigation into crow communication
Very bright people have invested a great deal of time and effort into researching crow communication, with little to show for their efforts. What is it about this subject that is so difficult to understand?
Because there are so many variables to consider when studying crow vocalizations, it is difficult to conduct thorough research. In addition, individual caws can have a wide range of duration, pitch, and inflection variations, and they can be delivered in a structured series (in which case the cadence and rhythm can vary) or in an unstructured manner, depending on the situation.
Context is also important: the same call may mean different things depending on whether it is uttered on or off territory, or in the presence or absence of a mate, whereas different calls may mean the same thing depending on whether they are uttered by a male or female, or a large or small bird, respectively.
It is possible to distinguish between two basic styles of “cawing” that crows use, and once you learn to recognize the differences, crow language becomes much easier to understand for bird language enthusiasts.
Before you can “crack the code” on crow vocalizations, I believe you will need the following items: The use of a large population of marked crows can provide information on the caller’s ID, gender, age, and social status), constant tracking of which bird is calling (to account for individual call variation), the caller’s location (on or off territory, flying, on ground, or perched), information on what’s happening near the caller (mate nearby/away, food present, rival present), and a sound analysis program sophisticated enough to extract complex information from individual calls (such as pitch contour (such as the time between calls within and between series or the cadence among series).
Is there any evidence of morphemes that can be identified?
There are none that I am aware of. There was a study conducted 40 years ago that focused on a topic that was similar to morphemes—they investigated which characteristics of an assembly call were the most important for conveying the message to crows who were listening in. 5
Can you explain the differences between “call and response” and “turn-taking” from the perspective of animal communication?
My understanding is that “turn taking” animals aren’t particularly concerned with communicating with one another; instead, they simply wait for the other to stop calling before making their own call (there is less noise and better transmission if two signals don’t overlap). Animals engaged in “call and response” communication, on the other hand, are directly communicating with one another: one animal listens to the signal of another and formulates a response in response to that signal.
Do crows have the ability to sing (according to the technical definition)?
This is a difficult question to answer. It takes time to learn bird song. It is more complex than bird calls; it is species-specific; and it serves two purposes: to warn males away from the territory and to attract and court females. Crow caws are not known to be learned or innate, but they do meet the other criteria for song that we have identified so far (although the various coos, rattles, and other soft notes mates utter to each other might be part of the courtship behavior). Although structured crow caws do not sound like a traditional bird song, they appear to meet the technical definition of the word “bird song.”
Do crows meet the definition of being able to communicate?
Linguists become enraged every time a scientist refers to an animal’s communication system as having the characteristics of a language. Various definitions exist for language, but all agree that it is a complex form of communication governed by strict rules and syntax (for example, there is a difference between “hat on head” and “head on hat”) and that it is only understood by humans. While crows are certainly capable of exchanging basic information among themselves, this communication does not meet the criteria for being considered to be a form of communication.
A common mystery for people who study birds and bird language (what is bird language?) is the behavior of the American crow and other closely related species. Because crows have such a diverse vocal repertoire, it can be difficult to make sense of their sometimes perplexing behavior.
Despite the fact that their communication is complex and varied, crows have the potential to provide some of the most important information that can be gleaned from listening to bird language.
Crows are almost always present in areas where people congregate, and their alarm calls travel such a long distance that, if you learn to recognize the alarm behavior of a crow, you will be able to significantly increase the distance at which you can detect things like hawks, eagles, and other aerial predators in the area.
If you want to learn Crow language, the best approach is not to try to comprehend every nuance, but rather to look for the broadest level distinctions that can help us categorize all of the different calls into simple categories.
Caws can be divided into two types
Crow language can be broken down into two major categories that you’ll hear when you’re out in the field, which can be broken down even further at the most basic level.
I’d venture a guess that not knowing how to listen for these two categories accounts for the majority of the difficulties that beginning bird language students have when trying to understand crows’ communication.
In part, this is because a large proportion of the crow calls heard outside are non-contextual, that is, they cannot be reliably associated with anything specific such as a predator because their primary function is to communicate with other members of their flock from a distance, much like a companion call.
When people hear these calls, they immediately begin to wonder if they are referring to something specific, when in reality, they are simply indicating that there is nothing specific happening in the landscape at the time of hearing.
The other basic type of call is noticeably different and is always associated with a specific event, such as the presence of a predator, to name a few examples.
In most cases, once you’ve determined that you are, in fact, listening to some sort of bird language event in the crow vocalizations, it’s a simple matter of digging a little deeper to find out where it’s coming from.
Calls from a Friend (Non-Contextual Vocalizations)
Crows make a lot of companion calls, but they are very different from the calls made by other passerines, such as juncos, sparrows, and chickadees, which are very similar.
What you’ll hear is the crow, which will usually be perched high in a tree and staring off into the distance, emitting a short burst of 1–9 “caws.”
The caws will all sound the same, and then there will be a pause, which indicates that the crow is waiting for a response.
After a few seconds, or perhaps longer, it will emit another burst of similar caws, followed by another period of silence, before repeating the process.
This pattern of bursts and silence can continue for a significant number of repetitions before the crow either quiets down or flees away.
The most important thing to keep in mind about this pattern of calling is that you will not be able to link the calls to any sort of specific context, such as a predator.
To hear an example of this type of calling, please press the play button:
Calls in the Context
The other broad category of calls can be linked to specific events taking place in the landscape, which is known as the event-driven category.
These calls are sometimes referred to as unstructured calls in academic research because they do not follow the same highly structured pattern of regular bursts and silence as the companion calls.
As opposed to companion calls, these “unstructured vocalizations” can be produced using the exact same caw sounds as the companion calls, but they are significantly more variable in terms of sound.
As the intensity of the event increases, the volume, pitch, frequency, and overall intensity of the sounds fluctuate.
As the crows mob the source of their excitement, a continuous “cawing” from multiple individuals can go on for an extremely long period of time without pausing or stopping.
If you hear these sounds coming from a group of crows, you might notice other crows flying towards them at high speed, as if they were rallying to mob an eagle or an owl, which is what happened in this case.
Another possibility is that you will hear an abrupt escalation in the level of intensity as the cooper hawk flies to a new perch.
Because of the sudden bursts given off by groups of crows, it is possible to hear the movement of things such as coopers hawks at the front of their disturbance.
It is important to note that this pattern of phone calls is not always a cause for concern.
The majority of the time, crows are simply fighting over food or trying to steal a fish from an osprey, nothing more.
Crows and ravens will defend their territories from other crows and ravens from time to time. However, once you’ve detected this type of activity and determined that it isn’t just a simple companion call, it’s simply a matter of getting close enough to investigate what’s causing all of the commotion.
The following audio recording contains good examples of a low-intensity alarm situation throughout, mostly in the background, but there is also a short clip at 13 minutes that comes through more in the foreground at the end of the recording.
Fortunately, these two straightforward styles of crow calling are so easily distinguished that, with a little listening practice, you’ll be able to tell the difference in no time.
It is not necessary to have any special hearing abilities in order to detect and understand these broad levels of crow communication.
The ability to hear crow calls and determine with reasonable certainty whether there is something unusual happening on the landscape or whether the crows are simply going about their daily business of feeding and moving about their territories will be enhanced if you have this awareness in your back pocket.
Cranes are one of the most mysterious and complex birds on the planet, and we are still learning more and more about them on a daily basis. Crows are capable of communicating with one another, which is a fascinating aspect of their behavior. They are highly intelligent animals with a distinct language of their own, and their communication with us humans is occasionally directed in our direction.
So, what exactly does it mean when a crow caws at your window or door? Cawing at you can be caused by many different factors, but the most common are to establish a connection with you, to warn you of a potential threat, or to scare you away. If a crow caws at you when there are no other crows around, it may be trying to communicate with you or establish a relationship with you.
The message that a crow is sending you can be very different depending on the context in which you hear it. The meaning of a crow’s cawing can be deduced from the other patterns or factors that the bird exhibits, as well as whether there is a deeper spiritual significance to the cawing.
Superstition of the Crow Cawing
Because of their mysterious nature and dark feathers, crows have been associated with magic, occultism, mysticism, and death for much of recorded history. According to folklore, crows are considered supernatural creatures who can travel between the physical and spiritual worlds and aid in the navigation of lost souls to the underworld. Crows have a special relationship with the dead because they are carrion birds.
This has led to the widespread belief that if a crow follows and caws at you, particularly at night, you will experience bad luck or die. The caw of a crow in the morning signals that you have averted disaster and that new beginnings are on their way.
Other superstitions associated with birds include the following:
- One Crow Can Be Heard Cawing. When a crow caws, it is believed that bad luck and destruction are on their way.
- Two crows are cawing at the same time. The cawing of two crows is believed to bring good fortune, harmony, and good news.
- Three crows are cawing in the distance. The cawing of three crows indicates that you will be blessed with good health.
- Four crows are cawing at the same time. Four crows cawing at the same time indicates that you will soon enjoy abundance, good fortune, and prosperity.
- Five crows are cawing at the same time. The cawing of five crows is a harbinger of ill health and illness to come into play.
How to Communicate and Interact with Crows Using These Tips
However, even the most experienced ornithologists aren’t always sure how to interpret birdsong. There are some general guidelines that can help you get a general sense of what those crows are trying to communicate.
Crows are known to make a lot of noise when they are upset, and this is generally true. In the presence of danger, the caws become louder, longer, and more closely spaced together.
The greater the number of crows that caw, the greater the uproar. In other words, the size of the problem can be determined by the number of crows who are contributing to the discussion.
Among the various types of vocalizations used by birds are the following: songs, contact calls, and rattles (which are used when the bird is calm and relaxed); territorial maintenance, juvenile begging, and alarm. If you can determine the call’s context, you can usually figure out what it’s trying to say.
If you put in a little effort, you can learn to recognize the emotion expressed in the intensity of the caws.
Some types of vocalizations are used in a variety of situations, whereas others are uncommon and used only in specific situations. Caws can be heard all the time; rattles, on the other hand, are usually reserved for the most intimate of situations and for close companions.
The caws are most likely coming from a baby crow who is hungry, needs company, or wants to be picked up and held.
The frequency of the caw caw is more likely to be a structured companion call of some sort, whereas the erratic or explosive burst of sound is more likely to be a warning of danger.
Crows, like us, pay attention to what we have to say. A growing body of evidence suggests that they can recognize both familiar and unfamiliar voices, and that they can distinguish between different human languages (like Japanese and Dutch, for example).
The majority of people who befriend and feed crows use a whistle or some other auditory cue to attract the attention of their birds.