In Part I of this series I overviewed a new study from my colleague, Loma Pendergraft, about why crows call after discovering food. For Part II, Loma answered follower-supplied questions on all things crow communication. The topics we cover include:
Crow-other animal communication
The study of crow communication
I hope you find these answers helpful, or at least illuminating into all that is left to be discovered. Please feel free to leave any additional questions in the comments!
Many people describe situations where they feel they have experienced “conversations” with crows, meaning a back and forth exchange of sounds. Do you think crows notice when we vocalize at them and attempt to vocalize back?
If a person and a crow regularly interact (usually because the person reliably feeds the crows), then it’s fairly common for ritualistic behavior to develop, especially if the behavior is rewarded with food. I don’t know if crows see our vocalizations as an attempt at communication, but they might see it as step one in a series of steps that ends with them being fed- they are vocalizing back to the person because the last time they tried, the person fed them afterwards.
Should people give a signature sound when feeding “their” crows?
It certainly wouldn’t hurt. Crows are smart animals and they’ll quickly learn to associate “their” person’s call with imminent food. This would let the person call the crows to them over long distances.
Do crows try and get the attention of their human feeders with sounds? Might these sounds be just for them (like a specific name or greeting)?
Yes, crows will certainly try to use sounds to get their feeder’s attention. I have a family of crows that come to my office window, and they’ve learned that if they give a rattle call, I’ll feed them (this is actually because I’m often too focused on my computer to notice them unless they call). As to the personalized greeting, that’s possible, but I don’t know for certain.
Can you tell if you are in a crow’s good graces by the sounds it makes?
I don’t know about good graces, but you can certainly tell if you’re in a crow’s bad graces by the sounds they make. If a crow starts scolding you, you know it considers you a threat.
Can crows describe specific people to other crows?
Not directly through vocalizations (e.g. “the dangerous human has black hair and a red shirt”), but they can do so indirectly. If a crow sees a dangerous person, they communicate the presence of danger via vocalizations (“danger here”). When other crows arrive, they watch what the calling crow does to identify which person is dangerous (the screaming bird is divebombing the black-haired human with the red shirt; I better remember him).
Crow-other animal communication
Do crows eavesdrop on other birds to learn new information?
Yes. Crows will respond to the alarm calls of other birds to learn about a predator’s location.
Can crows communicate with other corvids?
Crows will respond to the alarm calls of other corvids (for example, it’s quite common in Seattle for a Steller’s jay to find a sleeping owl, alarm call, and subsequently attract a mob of crows).
Any evidence they listen to mammals? Like would they respond to a squirrel alarm call and vice versa?
I am not aware of any studies that examined whether crows respond to the alarm calls of mammals. I would argue that crows can probably identify certain species of mammalian predators (such as cats, raccoons, squirrels, etc) by listening to their vocalizations, but again, I’m not aware of any studies that examined this.
Do individual crows have specific sounds (like names) for each other?
I don’t know, but there are some interesting anecdotal stories that might shed light on this. Pet ravens who’ve learned to mimic human speech will yell their own name when searching for their owner. This suggests that while the human assigns the name to the bird, the raven assigns the name to the pair bond between them.
Do crow dialects vary by region? If so, on what kind of spatial scale do we define region? Would crows from different regions react appropriately to calls from outside their region?
American crows west of the cascade mountains sound different (their calls are harsher and lower pitched) than the American crows throughout the rest of the country, probably due to ancestral hybridization with Northwestern crows. I don’t know if American crows have dialects in the sense that “traditional” songbirds (such as song sparrows) have dialects. While visiting Oklahoma, I tried playing back alarm calls that I’d recorded in Seattle- the Oklahoma crows reacted the same as Seattle crows (I didn’t have the opportunity to try other call types).
How much variation is there in how individual crows sound? Is it distinct enough to be identifying?
There is a LOT of variation in crow vocalizations, which made interpreting my results very difficult. However, there is evidence that this variation is distinct enough to allow for individual identification. 1
How many difference sounds can a crow make?
More than most people think. The loud caws make up the bulk of their vocalizations, but they will also utter rattles, growls, coos, and other odd sounds. They are also decent mimics, and can learn to imitate the vocalizations of other animals (including people).
Is there a library that describes the different calls and what they mean?
You can find a large repository of crow recordings at the Macaulay Library, but I am not aware of any libraries that attempt to explain what the calls mean (mostly because we DON’T know what most crow calls mean).
What do the number of caws in a sequence mean?
We don’t know. They are probably important, but only as one component among many different elements.
How much do we know about crow syntax?
Next to nothing, unfortunately. We do know that structured calling has layered repetition in that caws are repeated several times in a series, and series are repeated over the course of several minutes. Here’s one of the more comprehensive studies that cover this topic: Parr, C. (1997). Social behavior and long-distance communication in Eastern American Crows. Ph. D. dissertation, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI
Can you distinguish males and females from their calls?
I can’t, but there is evidence that the crows can distinguish between male and female calls.2
Do they learn their core sounds from a vocal tutor (as do other songbirds) or is it innate?
I don’t know, nor am I aware of any studies that have examined this.
Do crows ever talk to themselves? Meaning, make sounds not intended for the ears of other crows?
Young crows will “babble” quietly to themselves. I have recorded captive crows uttering very quiet notes in the absence of any immediate neighbors, but as there were other crows in view, you can’t say with certainty that they were talking to themselves.
People described one particular sound in a variety of ways. Some called it clicking, other knocking, some described as the sound Predator makes. I suspect you’ll know it as the rattle call. By any name you wish you describe it, what does it mean?
Most scientists describe it as the “rattle call” (for those who haven’t heard it, it really does sound like the rattling growl of the predator from the 1987 movie). Unfortunately, we don’t know what it means. There is evidence that only female crows utter this sound.3
What do the soft “wow/hoo/wah” calls mean?
We don’t know. It has been described in several scientific papers, but those authors don’t know what it means either.
Have you ever heard them give a call you would describe as a single “beep” sound? Do you know what it means?
Unfortunately, I have not heard them utter this sound. Crows are decent mimics- perhaps what you heard was a crow mimicking something else?
Do you know what the “Gah” sound means?
Do you now what it means when they puff up and bow and make this kind of “rah RAH” sound?
It sounds like you are describing a vocalization that I labeled “medium call” in my paper (the puffed-up bowing display is commonly done with this call). I believe it is a territorial call- when I played it back to listening crows, they became agitated and responded with their own calls and dominance displays.
Do crows have predator-specific calls like chickadees or prairie dogs?
We don’t think they have species-specific calls the way that prairie dogs do, but there is evidence that they call louder and faster around more dangerous predators (such as hawks) in a similar manner to chickadees giving more “dee” notes to denote relative danger.4
Can crows mimic human voices? Would a wild crow ever learn to mimic human voices, or only captive ones?
Crows are capable of mimicking human voice, but I would only expect captive crows to do this. Hand-reared captive crows usually see themselves as people and bond with their owner the way they normally would a mate. Wild crows wouldn’t have the same exposure or motivation.
Do wild crows ever mimic non-human sounds (other birds, car alarms, etc.). If so, why?
They are capable of mimicking other sounds. I don’t know their motivation for doing so, but I would guess that there’s a social aspect to it (play behavior or impressing prospective/current mate).
The study of crow communication
Very bright people have poured energy and resources into studying crow communication with little return on investment. Why is this so difficult to study?
Crow vocalizations are difficult to study because there’s so many variables to consider. Individual caws can have a wide variation in duration, pitch, and inflection, and they can be uttered in a structured series (which itself can have variation in cadence and rhythm) or as unstructured calls. The context also matters- the same call might mean different things if uttered on/off territory or in the presence/absence of a mate, whereas different calls might mean the same thing depending on whether it’s uttered by a male/female or large/small bird.
I believe that you would need the following before you can “crack the code” on crow vocalizations: a large population of marked crows (caller’s ID, sex, age, and social status), constant tracking of which bird is calling (to account for individual call variation), the caller’s location (on/off territory, is it flying, on ground, or perched), info on what’s happening near the caller (mate nearby/away, food present, rival present), and a sound analysis program sophisticated enough to extract complex info from individual calls (such as pitch contour, pitch wobble, power envelope, and inflection duration) and the overall bout of calls (such as the time between calls within and between series or the cadence among series).
Is there evidence of identifiable morphemes?
None that I’m aware of. There was a study conducted 40 years ago that focused on a topic similar to morphemes- they examined which qualities of an assembly call were the most important for conveying the message to listening crows.5
From an animal communication perspective, can you explain the differences between “call and response” and “turn taking”?
I’m not very familiar with the differences between these terms, but it’s my understanding that “turn taking” animals aren’t focused on communicating with each other- they are simply waiting for the other to stop calling before they give their own call (there’s less noise and better transmission if two signals don’t overlap). In contrast, animals engaged in “call and response” are directly communicating with the other- one animal listens to another’s signal and formulates its response accordingly.
Do crows sing (by the technical definition)?
This is a tricky question. Bird song is learned, more complex than calls, species specific, and serves the dual purpose of warning males away from the territory and attracting/courting females. We don’t know if crow caws are learned or innate, but they do fit the remaining criteria for song (although the various coos, rattles, and other soft notes mates utter to each other might be part of the courtship behavior). It might not sound like a traditional bird song, but structured crow caws seem to fit the technical definition for it.
Do crows meet the definition of having language?
Anytime a scientist describes an animal’s communication system as a language, it makes the linguists angry. Language has many definitions, but all acknowledge that it’s a complex form of communication with rules and syntax (for example, there’s a difference between “hat on head” vs “head on hat”) that’s limited to humans. While crows are certainly capable of communicating basic information among themselves, this communication does not meet the definition of having language.
Thanks again to everyone that sumitted questions for this post and to Loma for taking the time to respond. To learn more about Lomas’ work or ask him more questions please check out his blog.
- Mates, E. A., Tarter, R. R., Ha, J. C., Clark, A. B., & McGowan, K. J. (2015). Acoustic profiling in a complexly social species, the American crow: caws encode information on caller sex, identity and behavioural context. Bioacoustics, 24: 63-80
- Yorzinski, J. L., Vehrencamp, S. L., McGowan, K. J., & Clark, A. B. (2006). The inflected alarm caw of the American crow: differences in acoustic structure among individuals and sexes. The Condor, 108 518–529
- Tarter, R. R. (2008). The Vocal Behavior of the American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos [master’s thesis]. The Ohio State University
- Yorzinski, J. L., & Vehrencamp, S. L. (2009). The Effect of Predator Type and Danger Level on the Mob Calls of the American Crow. The Condor, 111: 159–168
- Richards, D. B., & Thompson, N. S. (1978). Critical Properties of the Assembly Call of the Common American Crow. Behaviour 64: 184–203
51 responses to “Crow Vocalizations Part II: Q&A”
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Hi, xeno-canto.org has a large collection of lots of birds (including crows, magpies and jays). I once played a recording of a jay ‘singing’ downloaded from there out of my flat window and the next day it came and said ‘hello’. It was clearly ‘talking’ to me specifically (no-other creatures were nearby). The speech was quite elaborate. It was surprising as Jays (of the variety one finds in the UK) are usually shy and remain out of sight but this one was less than two metres away.
Thank you Drs. Swift and Pendergraft for a fascinating post! There is nothing better than being able to “pick the brains” of experts in a field!
Hi, I enjoyed reading all of this but I’m curious why you dismiss that crows have a complex language , similar to humans , considering the post also posited that their “code can’t be cracked”? The author claimed that they can’t assume or infer any kind of mental aspect of the bird but state that they don’t have a language as complex as ours..
It’s not the the author (me) or the interviewee dismissed that crows have complex language…it’s that the field of study that sets the definition of language has essentially set the goalpost to exclude anything but humans. In order for terms to have meaning across fields of study, scientists need to agree on their definition and used those words consistently. It’s not up to us as ethologists (animal behaviorists) to define language, that’s for the linguists to do. And by the definition of language set by that field…crows don’t meet it. We might someday learn that they do, but for now we can’t claim that.
this was a really awesome pair of posts! thank you both so much, i’ve long wondered about how much we know regarding their vocalizations. i have the same desire as many to “speak crow.” i’m going to make a point of finding a feeding place to return to and make a consistent sound each time. thanks and keep educatin’ 😉 ~dan.
I should probably read the papers before commenting, but being lazy… I do wonder to what extent differences in the way crows see and hear the world might make finding correlations with behavior more difficult to find. What frequencies do crows hear best? What colors do they see? What parts are outside the range that us humans use?
Thanks for this post, though. It did answer some of my questions.
Thank you for all the interesting information!
I am feeding a resident hooded crow pair for a few years. Especially the male bird has become very close, he feeds of my hand. About two months ago he started making a specific sound after feeding. He is puffing up and producing a kind of knock sound (you can see videos on my crow blog “Kräri_crow” on instagram: https://www.instagram.com/p/BvmO4dVFNJo/). I don’t really understand what it means but think it might be something like “feed me” or “give me food”. Do you know that sound?
Hi Alexandra, so that sound is a bit different (because it’s coming from a hooded crow) but I think the best approximation in the American crow is the wow call (I notice their body postures are very similar when they make them). Not having spent time around hooded crows I really can’t speculate as to its meaning, but my guess is that like the American crow calls, this is one that is used in lots of different contexts and doesn’t have one specific meaning.
I’ve directly observed a very similar call by a small family of three UK Carrion Crows that I used to feed.
I’ve observed that, with the Carrion Crows, the call is in a higher pitch (almost matching that of a cat’s meow) and is accompanied with a downward head bow as the Crow makes the call. Each individual call ends with a two beak clicks. They repeat the sequence two or three times, in succession.
I have not determined why they do it. It’s not loud enough to be heard at a distance, so it’s almost certainly intended to be heard in the immediate vicinity.
I suspect it’s directed at the human acquaintance (me, in this case) because the call has been made whether it’s been just myself and one Crow present, or whether all three Crows were present (but only one bird produces the call).
The call has been made by both a parent (unsure which) and the offspring.
They’ve done it whether food has been available, or no food available. They’ve made the call both before they’ve been fed, and afterwards (though not on the same occasion). They’ve made the call from the lowest branches of the tree overlooking the bench that I sat on, and they’ve also made the call on the ground. At all times, no other crows were visibly nearby, the birds were always relaxed, and the only other constant factor is my presence.
So, my non-scientific speculative conclusion is that it’s a friendly, affectionate call.
This is so interesting. I have a couple of birds setting up a nest in a new tree. There was a lot of noise, fighting and one bird then started flying from tree to tree screaming in what appeared to be distress. The other birds then got on with their own business. I have never heard the sound before. I’m guessing someone stole a nest but I|’m not sure who. Any ideas both on nest stealing and on the screaming
Hi. This is all so fascinating to me, as I thought I was alone with my Crow experiences, or that folks would think I was crazy talking/communicating with Crows, like my family do!
over the years, in and around a nearby countryside village churchyard in N. England, there is a huge community of Crows living in the big trees there.
I have made friends with many of them over the years.
YES they do know me, I taught some of them to say my name or more often a 2 syllable call-type approximation of my name.
I have found young ones fallen from nests, or broken winged ones over the years, taken them home, healed, helped, bathed fed, befriended, bonded them and then taken them back to the Churchyard. One of the crows visits my house at least once a day from the Churchyard and has brought others. Iy can gain access through a certain back porch window where I leave a latch/lever it was taught to use.
Oh gosh, I have so many heartwarming stories I could share!
The levels of communication.contact I have experienced over the years with these amazingly bright, cheerful and intelligent beings is remarkable.
Thank you everyone for sharing your Crow stuff/research.
And thank you crow lady for this blog.
I have noticed the crows here (Gloucester, England) making the rattling, knocking noise whenever there’s a buzzard about. Whenever I hear it, I look up, and without fail, there’s a crow mobbing a buzzard. I have never heard them making this noise for other raptors though.
Would be exciting to see if other family understands it the same way or its just sound that only this family understand this way. Basically if it means the same or if anything for every crow.
Hi! I have a question concerning crow vocalisation. My local crow family’s 2 youngsters(Surrey, UK) are now 4 months old and it seems to me that they do not master real croaking yet. They are healthy and happy and make lots of other, softer sounds, They try out the grown up throat swelling pumping motion their parents do, but the croaking is nothing like it yet. It is funny and touching to watch. I have tried looking up in books and on line when crows are able to do the deep croak, but are still not wiser. Please Kaeli, can you help?
With Thanks for a great informative blog.
Hmmm, this is not one I know the answer to! I’ll ask some of my friends that have been involved in hand raising crows.
I’ve been driven to internet search by a brooding crow that’s been calling all day near my house (NW District in Portland). I think she’s got eggs, because she’s staying in the nest but she’s making a lot of noise: a single slightly higher-pitched, continuous caw. Is the behavior you recognize?
(A week or two ago I heard a single, quiet rattle from her up there in the nest and am wondering if she was actually laying an egg…)
Hi Connie, google succeeded in bringing you to the right place, but failed to bring you to the right article. This is the one you need: https://corvidresearch.blog/2015/04/22/crow-curiosities-who-is-begging-in-april/
Thanks – the nestbound female “begging” for food was my top hypothesis.
Very interesting! Thank you. For the past several years, I’ve been regularly feeding what I suspect is a family unit of crows whose territory includes my house in Dallas. Generally there’s 5-7 individuals in the group; varies year to year. Each morning I prepare a buffet (cat treats, peanuts, meal worms, suet, or peanut butter, occasionally cheese or egg) on a board and place it in a specific place in my yard. Initially when they discovered I had put out the food, they would vocalize what I interpreted as a feeding/backup call, which was a loud, short, staccato caw, which sounds like it ends with ‘k’. (Sort of like ‘hawk! hawk!’) This would be repeated several times. It is a distinct call, different from the routine vocalizations I hear them making around the neighborhood, which is a more drawn out ‘caw’ sound which ends in a ‘w’. The presumed feeding call is similar to the call they make when I’ve observed them mobbing a raptor, Although in that instance the call sounds more emphasized and is repeated multiple times at shorter interval. This last year, perhaps as they’ve become accustomed to my schedule, they no longer give the feeding call at the morning buffet; one will usually be hanging around the yard, and once the food is out there will be a chain of visits carrying it off, no doubt to a nest somewhere. On occasion in the afternoon, one will come into the yard, or perch on my chimney, and give the feeding call until I come out. I will reward this behavior with a handful of peanuts; I’m not certain who has been training whom. As noted, now for the morning feeding they generally are quiet, but frequently as I am preparing the buffet, an individual will be watching from a tree overhead, and softly verbalizing a burbling sound; I’m not sure if this is what people refer to as a rattle call. The interesting thing to me is that I do not see other crows within earshot; I’m not sure if this sound is directed to me, or if the crow is just babbling to itself in satisfaction of the impending feeding. They are fascinating creatures!
I’m feeding a group of crows. One is older and has returned from previous year. I was bringing out food and he was up to the tree above me. He made a boing boing boing sound. Sounded like exaggerated water dripping sound. I took it as an affectation for me. Don’t disabuse me. Any comments? I li e in Redmond WA, east of Seattle.
The water drop sound is a very fun one indeed!
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Vocalizations are fun stuff. I live in Vancouver WA and made friends with a crow near my work. I would always share my muffins with him, and he began to associate me and my truck with treats. I could call out “Muffin!” and he would normally show up for food. If I didn’t see him, he would give me a couple short soft caws that I figured were crow for muffin.
And there’s a Steller’s jay at a park I often visit that can imitate the hawks. It’s a slightly deeper kyree than theirs, and I think he was using it to intimidate other birds. It was AMAZING to figure out who was doing that noise from so low in the trees.
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Regarding your answer to crow recognition of individuals.
Heather N. Cornell, John M. Marzluff and Shannon Pecoraro (29 June 2011)
Social learning spreads knowledge about dangerous humans among American crows.
Yes this is the study that demonstrates Loma’s answer to the question “Can crows describe specific people to other crows?”
Wild crows learning human language? I can’t speak for the crows, but the Steller’s Jays around my first camp certainly learned my whistled songs (“If I find out who taught the birds to whistle ‘Jingle Bells’, I’ll…”), and a funny story…
I rescued roosters, and the goal was always Rescue, Rehabilitate, and Rehome. I was on the phone with a potential adopter, middle of the woods, middle of my yard, roosters surrounding me- no one alerted to an invading presence, except a few areal calls that I ignored, since they weren’t very pressing.
“HEY, YOU,” a deep, gravelly, gruff voice shouted… from above me? It was so clear, the person on the other side of the call asked if I was in trouble! I scanned the yard, then heard the loud, shrieking call of a Steller’s. I looked up, and with crest raised, it hopped around in the tree above me, occasionally letting loose that shrill call. I still wonder if, and quite suspect, it was laughing at me.
Crows in my neighborhood communicate with numbers:
Two caws = “Where are you?” (I will often hear a distant reply of two caws, as in, “I’m over here.”)
Three caws = “Danger!” (They’ll do it whenever they see a dog or a person they don’t know.)
Four or more caws = Territorial. “This is my turf.”
During Memorial Day weekend, crows were attacking people in San Francisco. They make the distinct “3 caws” before swooping down on people. The attacks only lasted three days. I thought this was due to fledglings, but a friend told me that there was a dead crow in the vicinity. This could be grief induced anger. I have heard the “3 caws” whenever I walk under a tried at other times without being attacked. I can conclude that whenever I hear the “3 caws”, it means that the crows don’t want me to stick around and to keep moving.
One day in the far off future humans are going to crack the code and understand crow language. And I’m jealous of them.
You and me both Leanne
I’m one linguist (specialized in dead languages) who has no problem with the hypothesis that birds and other animals have language. It hasn’t been disproved (though Chomsky might claim so). More importantly, many of the categories of definition of “language” by Charles Hockett have been shown to exist in animal “communication”. In my opinion, one of the most fundamental research areas, which doesn’t get much attention AND without which we can’t get very far, is the ability to differentiate between phonemes, morphemes, and lexemes. Even if we restrict the research to “syllables” (which lots of researchers talk about simply by looking at a spectograms and pointing on boundaries) and “words” (sounds with meaning), and ignore morphemes, I don’t see much research out there that allows us to find “words” in an unsupervised way in an unknown language. There are some algorithms that exist.
Has anyone applied these to corvids to at least create a set of “possible” dictionaries of words that can be tested against ground truth in the field?
Thank you for your work!!!! It is inspiring and amazing.
In England, sitting on window ledges some crows make a sound like Caw Caw in a very affected voice. I cannot resist singing back to them (one usually on its own) and then we have a conversation. But in Germany near Bremen Station I heard a crow that distinctly said “Curry Curry Curry”, My efforts to identify this over the internet unfortunately end up in posts about curry powder but I am sure I have heard of this sound somewhere.
Wild crows do mimic people. My husband taught a crow to repeat “hello hello”. Several years later there are quite a few that do it. They’ve taught it to each other. They say it when they see him around town, often surprising the people who are with him. When we arrive home they do it hoping they’ll get fed. They’ve been known to follow his truck when he’s heading home. They sit outside the window where he sleeps and say hello hello, trying to wake him. We always have the curtains drawn. I have no idea how they’ve figured out where he sleeps. They are so incredibly smart.
Hi Denise, I’d love to see a video. There’s a call they make that naturally sounds so much like “hello,” and I’d like to hear the difference. You can’t post it here, but you can find me on the corvid research face page or via email!
Great information! I live in Portland OR and I’m a long time birder/ Crow enthusiast. One winter 5 years ago I came across a huge grow gathering. Must have been many thousands in the group which covered a two square block radius. I stopped and fed them with snacks I carried as I was a Visiting Nurse out seeing patients. Since that day, every place I go within a 30 mile radius I get a three caw greeting from a sentinel crow then a few others will show up. I’ve developed relationships with crows in the last two jobs and at several of my residences. One used to swoop down at my head and touch my plastic hair bun holder and then land on the low edge of the gutter of my office, hanging over to get my attention for the morning treats I always brought for the crows. If I kept walking it would follow and land on the chain link fence lining our sidewalk. If I still ignored and went into the building there would be a crow sitting on the fence outside the window to my particular room of the building and he would caw loudly until I relented. Then a pair of crows started showing up and when they had a baby they brought it to me to meet. They would often land on the hood or trunk of my car and stare at me to let me know they were looking for food. I always used roasted unsalted peanuts or a good water moistened cat food and during nesting I occasionally brought small strips of raw chicken. I even managed to get one to eat cautiously out if my hand. I learned that I could call them in with a whistle and today at my home I have a pair, one with white specked on its neck and wings and tail that I whistle for that come for treats. There does seem to be a common call that I get which is just 3 caws and on occasion I get muffled throaty musical notes by individual crows which I think is a quiet way of saying they want a treat without letting others know they are there since it may not be their particular territory. The crow pair that feed in my back yard are chased away by crows that gather for food in front of my house so I have to feed each group separately. I live near a park and a greenway in east Portland so lots of big trees and places for them to nest and forage.
Thanks for sharing your experiences Randi!
Amazing moment this morning at 8 am…11 crows gathered at the top of a very tall tree in my back yard. It is mid-March and there are no leaves on the tree. (North shore of Lake Ontario, Cobourg, ON Canada)
One crow made most of the cawing noise but the others participated too. Several flew away. The town cryer crow repeated 6 caws several times. 5 flew away leaving 6 in the tree.
Then town cryer cawed 5 times. One left. Then 4 times. Another one left. Then 3 times and another one left. Now only the two remaining crows were in the tree. Town cryer cawed once and his buddy flew away.
One crow (the town cryer) remained.
He flew away (in the same direction as all of the others.)
I don’t know if these “means” anything but I feel privileged to have witnessed this.
Interesting. Have been desalting my woodlot soils for about 20 years. Woodland berries are returning to mixed forest meadow portions where they might not have been seen for centuries. I do this to feed local ground prey such as grouse or pheasant. There are ravens am familiar with there. Crows come too. But not close. Am raven bonded, they know. But they all pay me a fair bit of attention. Always from a distance. Even from two acres away. I trimmed out flight lines. Owls started coming at least within my view from Year 6/7. The ravens too but always from behind a discreet branch or limb. They like to spook me, will perch for hours, or entertain from distance, watching sometimes silent. Then drop and swoop never closer than 10 feet. But always throws its body drop so gently. Eagles come in to hide out from drones. On the ground. They like the maple saplings for their nests. I bring fresh seaweeds and kelp as mulch and they all pick at it in various seasons.
When they are happiest they cross over my side, never directly over my head, and I can only describe it as a body beat wing rhythm that radiates through the air from their wings to my body and back. Its a wonderful exchange, like a caress. They’re happy, well fed. I call them the happy flaps. They don’t need to flap. They can bounce that force off my body. Its a wonderful exchange like a shower in a fresh spring. They seem to love how I gave them back a spring that had not flowed for decades. Took me 20 years to that thing desalted. They know I love hearing how much they enjoy their baths too. They watched me make it for them.
So today I was at a harbour nearby, maybe 20 km away, where I can beachcomb for mulch bed frame edges. This Raven came up from low altitude, swooped in from behind the tree line. Vocalizations were “howh howh howh” not angry at least. The ravens I know have never expressed displeasure. I hang a brass turkish ornament usually seen on a donkey’s neck. It attracts attention all predator birds in general. They like shiny things. I think some come across counties to visit me. If I think I see them along half way, sometimes leave a little seaweed at specific spot. Its always gone passing back along. Extra large golden eagle in one location never shows me itself other than one time. I think it came to me at my other location over 100 km. The sweetest vocalizations any bird ever expressed to me. I never imagined how sweet golden eagles really are.
Ayahuaska not required. Bring seaweeds. My garden chair is located where a bald eagle pair likes to peak in from time to time. They sound like broken kazoo. Way smarter than I ever thought they were.
So the golden spent hours once showing me its flight skills in peak tourist season traffic. It wanted me to see how easily it avoided the cars, played with a roadkill it had brought. Like a sand bag. It showed me its back. Motionless. Pause in air. Several times. All of these birds take a look at me from the same distance away, over the shoulder whenever I see them. To me its a kind of sweetness to eagles I never realized they had before that. Have listened to various captive vocalizations. The golden then alighted on a mound I built to resemble snowy owl nest. I sat with my back to it. They seem to love that.
Back to the howh howh raven. In general the ravens I know well never come that close or directly. It was an interesting exchange to me. Especially the way the bird looked at me after the exchange. The ravens I know never look at me in the eye like that. At least not before. Could see no colour in the pupil almost completely dilated. Like a vision of Jaws. So maybe just wanted to be fed. Or maybe it was a raven have been “feeding” for decades, what they can pick on the beach on their own.
Its been busy last couple seasons around the woodlot. They like to come see me when there aren’t other people around. The raven group last visited me in early spring as I was leaving the mountain. Three or four. Sitting in the middle of the road in various poses. Like a band of monkeys. They entertain me to no end. So I slowly ever slowly inch the car up to them. In the woods, they do all the Buddhist woodblock sounds, and monkey like sounds around me often at springhead bird bath, a little trench I dug out to old potato field. The biggest one (oldest) can do an antique truck horn sound. Some say ravens can live up to 70 years.
I think he comes to my village too. I think usually send a younger scout in season when best mixed “sea veg” is in. More than 20 km. Village is crow territory. Raven doesn’t care. A raven I know or not, if I go the beach on those days, its the best days for mixed sea veg. The gelatin like finest seaweeds. The ones the Japanese and Koreans particularly relish. Not purely ravens. Eagles and ground birds too. Much more where that came from. Blame Conrad Lorenz.
Anybody else ever get fully dilated cat/shark eye look from Raven or Crow? Or interchange howh howh howh?
Great article! So appreciate all your articles! This is such an interesting topic considering how intelligent crows to be with such complex social systems, which can only make one wonder how complex their communication really could be. I love listening to the crows in my neighborhood talking to each other. I feel like their language is a lot of context having to do with their specific behavior accompanying their caws. And with watching them all the time, sometimes I feel like I can sort of figure out what they’re saying to each other. Like this little group always comes flying into my part of town together each morning and then right before some come to my section of the neighborhood, they will split apart and several will go in different directions by themself or with just one other crow, and they do a lot of cawing at this time, like they’re saying, “Hey guys, I am going to check out over here today,” and the other ones are saying, “Ok, I’m going this way.” And then when they meet up again at dusk, they do this again, and the ones farthest behind will caw the loudest like they’re saying, “Hold on, wait for me! I’m coming!” And the rest will caw back a little less urgent sounding like they’re saying, “Alright, but hurry up.” And then sometimes one will find a nice cash of food and will caw really loudly with their whole body like they’re saying, “Hey guys, over here! Look what I found! Somebody threw away a whole burrito! Come quick and help eat it before the seagulls get here!” And then just not too long ago, I watched a mom take her young juvenile sparrow bird hunting in a palm tree after the juvenile sounded like a kid in the backseat asking their mom if they could go through the McDonalds drive through, yelling, “Mom, I’m so hungry, can we go to the sparrow tree?! I want a happy meal!” And then mom led it it into the palm tree, plucked some eggs or something and was feeding baby while the crow was kind of flapping its wings about while making funny noises that I can only describe as sounding very gleeful for getting what they wanted. I don’t know if all these caws actually mean what I believe them to mean, and possibly giving them too much credit, but I like to pretend that these are the conversations they’re having. And I don’t know if I would really like to know what they really are saying, because what if it’s a let down? Kind of like that hilarious Farside poster titled, “Dog Bark Translator” with the guy walking down the street with his new dog bark translator which says the dogs are all just saying, “Hey, hey, hey!”…
I have been feeding crows where I work, and I have noticed they will make repetitive caws as they travel from tree to tree. I was wondering if it is a distance calculator for them. Something like, it takes them 12 caws to go from place A to place B, and then 16 to go from place B to C. They are very interesting to observe. They appear to have a lookout who caws, while two are eating. I’m, certainly, not an expert, but the lookout caws are like signals to let the birds know it is safe, and signals to let them know they have had long enough to get the food, and it’s time to go and let other crows eat. The lookout will fly to a lower area, the crows eating will fly off, and then the lookout crow will eat. I enjoy watching them.
Can you recommend any resources on Raven vocalizations? We have a very chatty one in the neighbourhood and s/he had a lot to say this morning,
Dog Days Raven Nights by John Marzluff and Winter Raven by Bernd Heinrich both talk about vocalizations
We’ve always had crows in the backyard until one day one hurt himself somehow and I had to bring him to the wildlife center after watching him for a while. Otherwise a cat would have snagged him. After they watched me take him they hadn’t been back until today when I thought I heard a cat stuck up in the tree. I kept looking for the cat and noticing the crow but when I looked at him it would stop. Then as I kept looking he would chatter at me. I’ve heard it for the past few days now. This is just your typica. black crow from California. We have tons of them.
I work at a grocery store in a big city, where crows gather in the trees of the parking lot, especially in the spring. On my breaks, I sit outside and listen to them. There’s one particularly strange call they… perhaps it’s the “rattling call,” clicking and gawking in a deep octave. Today I realized that our paper bags and carts filled with groceries make an incredibly similar sound; a sound that is unique to groceries stores. I hypothesize that crows mimic the “grocery bag” sound to advertise “Groceries here!” to parties of interest. On some days, I hear the “grocery call” more than others, but I haven’t been observing long enough to distinguish a pattern.
Please let me know if you’d like me to do anything to further investigate!
Hi Jordyn! This sounds like a very fun community science effort. One thing I would suggest to hone your hypothesis, is asking why/if it’s valuable for crows to advertise the groceries. Do the bags ever break open and they get some? Do they ever steal food directly from the bags themselves? If they aren’t actually getting food from the bags, why else would they mimic the sound? How do the other crows respond when they do? Lots of fun things to think about. Keep me posted!
As a child, I fed a family of crows for a few years, and they were wild crows. Certainly, I was not doing high level research, but I did get one member talking. I always presumed he was male.
I would say “good bird… goooood bird….” in a soft tone while he was eating, and one day, he began repeating the words to me.