There are two basic styles of “cawing” that crows do and when you learn to identify the differences it greatly simplifies crow language for bird language enthusiasts.
Keep reading to discover the basic distinction that enables you to discern alarmed behavior from other types of behavior in crows.
Or you can watch this video…
How to understand Crow Language
The American Crow and similar species are one of the never-ending mysteries for people who study bird language (what is bird language?). Their vocal repertoire is so complex that it can be challenging to make sense of the sometimes confusing behavior of crows.
Yet as complex and varied as it may be, crows have the potential to bring some of the most important information that you could glean from listening to bird language. They’re almost always around anywhere there are people and their voices travel so far that if you learn to recognize the alarm behavior of a crow then you’ll be able to greatly extend the distance at which you can detect things like hawks, eagles, and other aerial predators.
The best thing if you want to understand crow language is not to try and understand every complex nuance, but to instead look for the largest level distinctions that can help us sort all the various calls into simple categories.
Two basic types of caws
Crow language can at the most simple level be broken down into two major categories that you’ll hear when you’re out in the field. I would hazard a guess that not knowing how to listen for these two categories accounts for most of the confusion that beginning bird language people have around understanding crows.
This is because a huge number of the crow calls that you’ll hear outside are non-contextual… meaning that they really can’t practically be linked to anything specific like a predator because their primary function is simply to communicate with other members of their flock at a distance like a companion call. A lot of people when they hear these calls will try to figure out if it means something specific when what it really tells us is that there’s nothing specific happening in the landscape at the moment.
The other basic type of call is noticeably different and is always linked to a specific event such as a predator. Usually once you identify that you are indeed hearing some sort of bird language event in the crow vocalizations it’s only a matter of looking closer to figure out the source.
Companion Calls (Non-contextual vocalizations)
Companion calls are extremely common in crows but they work very differently than other passerines like juncos, sparrows or chickadees.
What you’ll hear is the crow will usually be up in a tree looking into the distance and it’ll give off a short burst of 1-9 or so “caws”. The caws will all be similar in sound and then you’ll hear a pause where presumably the crow is listening for a response. After a few seconds or maybe longer it’ll give off another burst of similar caws followed by another period of silence.
This burst & silence pattern can go on for quite a number of repetitions before the crow quiets down or flies away.
The key thing to notice with this pattern of calling is that you won’t be able to link the calls to any sort of specific context like a predator.
The other broad category of calls can be linked to specific events taking place in the landscape.
In academic research these are sometimes referred to as unstructured calls because they don’t follow that very structured pattern of regular bursts & silence as with the companion calls.
Instead, these “unstructured vocalizations” can be made with the exact same caw sounds as the companion calls but they are much more variable in terms of sound. They fluctuate in volume, pitch, frequency and overall intensity, as the event gets more intense.
Continuous “cawing” from multiple individuals can go on without stopping for a very long time as the crows mob the source of their excitement. If you hear these sounds coming from a group of crows, you might see other crows flying towards them at rapid speed to rally and mob an eagle or an owl.
You might also hear a sudden burst of intensity pick up as a coopers hawk flies to a new perch. In this way you can actually hear the movement of things like coopers hawks at the front of their disturbance by the sudden bursts given off by groups of crows.
It’s important to note that this pattern of calling isn’t always alarm. Sometimes crows will simply be fighting over food or attempting to steal a fish from an osprey. Sometimes they’ll be defending their territories from other crows or ravens; but once you’ve detected this sort of activity happening and you know it’s not just a simple companion call, then it’s just a matter of getting close enough to the source in order to figure out what all the commotion is about.
This link contains good examples of a low intensity alarm situation throughout, mostly in the background but also at 13mins there’s a short clip that comes through more in the foreground.
And this link contains an example on the more extreme end of the alarm spectrum such as when crows are rallying to mob an owl.
Applying this knowledge
These two simple styles of crow calling are so easy to distinguish that I’m sure as soon as you put in a bit of practice listening you’ll be able to tell the difference. You certainly don’t need to have any special hearing capabilities to detect and understand these broad levels of crow language.
Having this awareness in your back pocket will enable you to hear crow calls and know with reasonable certainty that yes there is something happening on the landscape or no, the crows are simply doing their normal everyday behaviors of feeding and moving about their territories.
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