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?


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.


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

31 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.

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  4. 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!

  5. 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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  10. 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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  13. 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…

  14. 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.

  15. 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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  18. 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 !

  19. Alastair Urquhart

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

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  21. 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.

    • Deirdre Devlin

      Haha Thanks for the laughI wonder what all the banter is about-Smoked out in Portland.Crows come to my hm for clean water-hard boiled eggs -same three youngsters with pink around mouths.Some days extended family-one time the young bird was flapping like baby getting fed-think it was mother .One time a single crow was in my large tree was cooing then went boope boope as I know ravens do-

  22. Really beautiful article showing the capabilities of my friends. I bookmarked it. I might use it as a reference on one of my web pages about crows. Am I allowed to translate it into Dutch. When English is not your native language, some parts are difficult to understand. Some visitors might drop out before reaching the end of your article.
    Actually making a dutch copy of your page, using the same images with credits to the photographer? Belief me, “no” is OK without any further explanation. Really.
    I’m thinking to copy your page exactly, in English, so you do not have to worry about translation errors. Dutch readers can flip a English paragraph in to dutch. Works like this:
    Little bit above that is an image of you, John Marzluff, Kris Tsujiwaka, and some others I use as source/reference material.

  23. 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.

  24. Christine

    This is so interesting! I am an US citizen who lives in Latvia. I feed the local crows daily (mostly dry cat food but occasionally other scraps from the kitchen.) When I see them, I speak English to them vs Latvian or Russian. I wonder what they think of English now?

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  26. Lisa

    Is there any evidence of them reacting this way by visual ID as well? I am curious what my neighborhood crows think when they see me. I don’t feed them or anything but I see same crows all the time, since I can ID a couple by various characteristics. But when I first got into bird watching, I swear they used to fly away whenever I tried to take their pictures. But now they let me take their pictures all the time. They’ll be in a tree right next to me, like a couple feet from my balcony, sometimes while hunting a sparrow egg or fighting with a competitor and they don’t even seem to care that I’m right there, and let me snap away with my camera. Sometimes they’ll even glance over to get a straight on shot, and position themself on the branch and cock their head side to side, as though they’re posing for me. So I’m just really curious what the crows think of me. Like, I feel like they have an opinion about me, but I just don’t know what it is. Because they are relatively birds of habit and always on missions, and they see me nearly every day. And since crows are so smart, I wonder how they perceive me, and how I fit into their world.

    • Lisa

      I also forgot to mention, in addition to them seeming to not care that I’m there now, I’m curious if they think I’m not just benign, but also “safe.” Last June there was a parent crow couple who had some recent fledglings who they called for, and then two little bright blue-eyed awkward flier cfrow kids came in and plopped down into the tree next to my balcony. The kid crows were less than 10 feet from me, while parents were maybe 30 feet from them across street on building roof. The parents seemed fine with me taking a keen interest in their children, as I was leaning over my balcony trying to get pics of them while the parents just nuzzled and cuddled each the whole time super calm. At one point the parents even flew off briefly. I felt kind of special, like maybe thought I was “safe” to leave their kids there or something. Again, I don’t feed them, but I also don’t interfere in any way, I’m just there all the time.

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