Crows are watching your language, literally

That crows can recognize humans faces (and other physical attributes) has been a staple of our experiences with them for thousands of years.  It’s part of what has allowed them to take such a prominent place within our cultures, and it’s what keeps us refilling our pockets with peanuts or kibble, anxious for the chance to be recognized, to be seen by a wild animal. If, like me, you’ve been committed to such a relationship, you probably found yourself wondering about what it is they’re saying all the time. Although we still have more questions than answers, it’s not for lack of trying; in fact parsing crow “language” is still a hot topic in corvidology.  But for all our efforts to understand what crows are so often going on about, have you ever thought much about what they make of what we’re saying?

DSC_1974

Calling American crow

Ask any crow feeder about their ritual and there’s a good chance that it starts with more than just making themselves visible. To get “their” bird’s attention, about half of crow feeders start with some kind of auditory cue, like a whistle or gentle name calling.¹ Given that American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) can be individually distinguished by their calls, and many corvids—including the large-billed crows (Corvus macrorhynchos)—can recognize familiar conspecific* calls, this strategy seems far from superstitious.2,3 In fact, previous work has demonstrated that crows can discriminate human voices.

When presented with playback of their caretakers or unfamiliar speakers saying, “hey,”  hand-reared carrions crows (Corvus corone) showed significantly more responsiveness towards unfamiliar speakers.4 That their response is different is what suggests that they can discriminate, but it’s hard to not do a double take at the fact that the thing they seem more interested in is the person they don’t know.  Shouldn’t they be more interested in the folks that generally come bearing gifts? While we still don’t have a super satisfying answer to this question, it’s possible this comes from the fact that novel humans are less predictable, and therefore more threatening, than a familiar caretaker who can be safely ignored. Likewise, a new study out suggests that it’s not just individual people crows can hear the difference between, but entire languages.

In a newly released study conducted by Schalz and Izawa (2020), eight wild large-billed crows were captured in major cities around Japan and subsequently housed in aviaries at Keio University where they were cared for by fluent Japanese speakers.5  Given both their life histories and their time in the aviary, it’s safe to assume these birds had listened to a tremendous amount of Japanese throughout their lives. So, it stands to reason they might be able to actually recognize this language as familiar, but to date no one had looked at crows’ ability to discriminate between languages.  To test this question the researchers used playback to present recordings from multiple unfamiliar Dutch or Japanese speakers.  As with the carrion crow study, when these crows were presented with playback of a more familiar acoustic style—in this case a Japanese speaker—they didn’t show a strong reaction. Play them what was likely a completely unfamiliar language—Dutch—and the crows were rapt. Or at least they acted more vigilant and positioned themselves closer to the speaker. In other words, large-billed crows were able to discriminate between human languages without any prior training!

junlge crow

Large-billed crow (Corvus macrorhynchos) Photo: Anne Kurasawa

The next most obvious question is, well, why? What purpose would it serve to discriminate between different languages among unfamiliar speakers? One possibility is that it’s just an artifact of the auditory perceptual skills they need to successfully be a crow.  As I mentioned earlier, there’s a lot of information encoded in their calls, including individual identity, so being attentive to rhythmic classes may be important.  Another reason that’s worth pursuing, though, is that it may help tip them off to tourists, who may be more inclined to share or easier to take advantage of, than locals.  Fortunately the lead author on this study, Sabrina Schalz, will be starting her PhD on this topic in the coming fall. You can find her on twitter at @Sabrinaschalz, where she’s promised to keep us abreast of her future discoveries.

So the next time you’re hanging out in Japan, don’t forget to literally watch your language around the local crows. And to be safe, I wouldn’t divulge any secrets to them either.  They’re not called large-billed crows for nothing.

*conspecific=member of the same species

Literature cited
1. Marzluff JM, & Miller M. (2014). Crows and crow feeders: Observations on interspecific semiotics.  In: Witzany, G. ed., Biocommunication of Animals.  New York: Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht. pp 191-211.

2. Mates EA, Tarter RR, Ha JC, Clark AB & McGowan KJ. (2015). Acoustic profiling in a complexly social species, the American crow: caws encode information on caller sex, identity and behavioural context, Bioacoustics, 24:1, 63-80, DOI: 10.1080/09524622.2014.933446

3. Kondo N, Izawa EI, & Watanabe S. (2010). Perceptual mechanism for vocal individual recognition in jungle crows (Corvus macrorhynchos): contact call signature and discrimination. Behaviour 147: 1051–1072.

4. Washer CAF, Szipka G, Boeckle M, and Wilkinson A. 2012. You sounds familiar: carrion crows differentiate between the calls of known and unknown heterospecifics. Anim Cogn 15: 1015-1019.

5. Schalz S. & Izawa E. (2020). Language Discrimination by Large-Billed Crows. In Ravignani, A., Barbieri, C., Martins, M., Flaherty, M., Jadoul, Y., Lattenkamp, E., Little, H., Mudd, K. & Verhoef, T. (Eds.): The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 13th International Conference (EvoLang13). doi:10.17617/2.3190925.

23 Comments

Filed under Crow behavior, Crows and humans, New Research, Science

23 responses to “Crows are watching your language, literally

  1. Absolutely fascinating! If you don’t mind, I will reblog this in a few days (I have a new post up right now; it deserves a little more time).

  2. Bob Spencer

    I had friendship with a family of ravens and would feed them every afternoon at the same place at the edge of a field. If anyone else went past that spot, they would not react. But, they could be more than a mile away and completely out of sight and if I went to the feeding spot, they would come to me immediately. I never spoke to them and they definitely could not see me, but they came immediately. How do they do that? Possibly, they had a look-out that could see me and call the others, but I really don’t think that was the case very often.

  3. I’m not in the slightest surprised to read that crows pay more attention to language that’s unfamiliar to them. As i see it, that’s basic instinct/common sense; every animal needs to check out the new and strange very carefully, to maximise chances of survival. Newspaper editors know that!

  4. Wayne A Garcia

    Really enjoyed your article. I have a daughter in college who just took a science writing class. This is a great example to show her. Plus I love crows. Win/ win. Thanks!

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  9. Morgana Washington

    Cool beans!! As a corvidae follower this was delightful. Research is always good, but if you spend alot of time with corvids you’ll learn the same things.😁 no

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  12. Nigel Seale

    I have two very close crow friends who I feed and talk to regularly.. I swear that there just might be some kind of collective recognition that all crows have of a human friend, even though they have never come across me before…

  13. Reblogged this on The Crow Nickels and commented:
    This is one of the sites I follow regularly for my background research for Sol, Abner, Ava, and all the rest of the crows.

  14. Mary Finelli

    The crows in the woods behind our house often engage in the most raucous conversations. I would so love to know what they’re saying!

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  17. Jan Draper

    I am sure that the crows have a term for me maybe inlcuding my dog. I often hear them saying it when they see me. I repeat it and they say it back…but then they say something else, something long and complicated. The first time I heard it–or noted this word-was many years ago when the trees on both sides of the road were filled with crows and they were all saying it. I had the definite sense that they were amused by me and the dogs and the name was funny to them. I wish that I were smart enough to know more…maybe they are saying “slow learner” in their language !

  18. Alastair Urquhart

    corvidology – beautiful. Thanks Drew. How’s it going your way?
    :A.

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  20. Serge

    I have been watching a bunch of crows from my window, which overlook a hill slope with a dead tree. They like to congregate there, and “talk”. It’s fascinating. They act just like people in a bar, with one saying something and, I could see 2 others arguing with the first one, until he got fed up with them. All the while a 4th crow would lower his head in disbelief at what he was hearing.

  21. Very nice writing. It’s funny — I see crows and other corvids a lot and, although I do find them interesting, I’d never really taking the time to learn much about them. Reading your blog has inspired me change that.

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