In 2010, I started befriending the crows in my neighborhood. Every year, there's at least one new baby crow to introduce myself to.
You hear them cawing all the time, whether you live in a city or in the country. Caw, caw, caw: the sound of crows chatting in the distance. When you start noticing crows' calls, you hear them everywhere you go. So many crows, so much cawing: But what does it all mean?
Although animals don't really have language the way humans do, animal "languages" can have many similarities to human language. Crows don't "talk," but they do communicate with a wide variety of sounds and movements. The "caw" sound is the call you'll hear most, but you'll also hear rattles, clicks and patterns, and you'll also see certain behaviors that
Understanding crow "language" is something many people—experts and amateurs— are interested in. And although nobody knows exactly what crows are saying, corvidologists have noted some very interesting patterns. Below, I share their research and findings with you, mixed in with my own 10+ year experience as a watcher and friend of crows.
Do crows' caws mean something?
Yes, they do. According to one crow researcher at University of Washington at Bothell, Douglas Wacker, "They wouldn't take the time or spend the energy to make all those vocalizations unless they serve some purpose."
As songbirds, crows have a vast repertoire of noises: caws, rattles, croaks, clicks, honks, screeches, and more. They can even mimic machines and human voices. Below, you'll be able to listen to various crow noises and learn what they might mean.
But the thing is, crows' vocal range is so complex that nobody knows for sure what a crow is saying. Even the best researchers at the top universities have limited information. So the best way to understand a crow is not to try to interpret every specific noise they make, but rather to look at the various situations and sounds to enable sorting vocalizations into various simple, recognizable categories.
There are two main categories of crows' calls: contextual (calls that seem to be responding to something in the environment) and non-contextual (calls that don't seem triggered by any immediate, pressing cause).
Two Types of Crow Calls: Contextual and Non-Contextual
Many crow calls are contextual, meaning that if one considers what is happening in the crow's environment at that moment, one can extrapolate a reason for the communication. But most of the calls you hear are non-contextual, meaning that they seem random and can't be directly linked to anything specific in the environment.
Unstructured Calls (Contextual)
These can be easily linked to specific events that are happening now. In academic settings, the term "unstructured" is used to describe these vocalizations because they don't follow a pattern of bursts and silences like the companion call (see below) but rather, they're more erratic and unique. These calls are made up of the same characteristic cawing sounds, but their patterns are more variable. In other words, those caws will sound more emphatic and intense and may fluctuate in pitch, volume, frequency, and emotion. They may fall into a pattern of sorts, but they're often more erratic, fast, and/or loud.
For example, when a predator approaches, a crow's caws may get louder, higher, and more frenzied.
Structured Calls (Non-Contextual)
These are the crow calls you usually hear. Usually you'll hear a repetition of a certain number of caws, anywhere from 1 to 10 or more. These are the same caws you'll hear in a contextual call, only they will sound more conversational and relaxed. These vocalizations convey mood, signal a crow's presence, and reassure others that there is no danger. They're the equivalent of taking attendance (I'm here, I'm here!) or a time-marking siren (It's 12 o'clock and all is well!).
For example, when a large group of crows flies by at sundown, cawing, they're likely letting the other crows know it's time to roost.
The Emotion Is Audible in the Call's Intensity
When crows mob a predator like a hawk, they erupt in loud, harsh, overlapping cacophony of caws. They turn up the volume, possibly to give the hawk the impression of a bigger and badder opposition. But if there's no threat, if a crow is just feeling lonesome or wanting to chat, the caws will sound less intense, more uniform, and follow a stronger pattern. Over time, your ears will learn to recognize this emotional intensity, and you'll be able to guess if the call is structured (No worries, everything's fine) or unstructured (Help, there's a hawk in our territory!).
Different Crow Sounds and What They Might Mean
- Clicking or rattling noises
- Cawing: 1 to 10 repetitions
- Companion calls
- Medium calls
- Food-related vocalizations
- Whining babies
- Annoyance, scolding, and territorial disputes
- Alarm calls and mobbing noises
Below, we'll listen to and explore all these different sounds and what they might mean.
Clicking or Rattling
Crow Rattles and Clicks
Some say these low-pitched rattling vocalizations sound metallic or mechanical, like a ratchet turning or the thrumming of spokes. This rattling noise is an intimate sound crows make to the closest members of their family. It's an intimate, familiar, friendly rattle I don't hear very often but when I do, I count myself lucky. It means that I've been allowed a little sample of the crow's most intimate and tender feelings, even if I'm only eavesdropping from afar.
I've heard mated pairs making this sound to one another, especially in the springtime. Sometimes, I hear a lonely crow rattling to itself, almost as a self-soothing reflex or perhaps longing for a mate. Once, when its parents left to find food, I heard a baby crow try to cajole them back by rattling at them from the top of a tree. When crows are playing together, I've heard them rattle at one another and it sounds like they're sharing a friendly little joke.
Caw, Caw, Caw
1 to 10 Relaxed Caws, Repeated
This is the most common call I hear in my neighborhood. Caws—from 1 to 10—interrupted by silence, then repeated—again and again: This is how the crows in my neighborhood carry on all day long. The best explanation is that this call is most often used as a checking-in sound, sounds to let all the other crows know how the day is going; a telecasted mood of sorts. Usually you'll hear two to four caws, repeated over time. Loosely translated, it might mean something like "I am here, this is my territory, this spot is taken, the coast is clear, nothing exciting happening here, everything's fine!"
Do the number of caws mean something?
It would be nice if it were that easy, if each number of caws had a simple translation. But although many experts have done extensive research, nobody has been able to determine if the number of caws has any relevance whatsoever. So although it does seem important, as far as we know, the number of caws doesn't translate to anything specific (although we do know that if a crow sounds a large number of caws, this shows a higher level of intensity than a single caw would, so we might say that if the crows has enough stamina to broadcast it 5+ times in each repetition, the emotion or intensity might also be higher.
Companion calls (also known as contact calls) are the most common crow call. You'll hear an unhurried, relaxed burst of 1 to 10 similar-sounding caws followed by a period of silence (during which, presumably, the crow is listening for a response), followed by another burst of calls and yet more silence. This pattern can go on for quite awhile. This non-contextual call doesn't seem to be triggered by anything specific or unusual in the setting. It's just the crow letting everyone know it's alive and hoping someone else is, too.
Cawing Faster, Louder, and Longer
If you watch to the video, you'll hear cawing that sounds almost like a dog barking! And, in fact, this is very similar to the sound my neighborhood crows make when they see a dog. My crows bark at my neighbor's dogs when they meet on the sidewalk.
Because the call is unstructured, it is more likely a warning of some kind, but probably not for anything scary, dangerous, or unusual since the emotion level isn't very intense. Remember that you can hear the level of emotion in the intensity of the call: Faster, longer, louder, and more erratic caws generally indicate heightened emotion.
Some researchers posit the idea that medium calls (calls that are more frequent than a relaxed Companion Call, for example, but not as frenzied as Mobbing Calls) may serve the purpose of defending territory or food. And when crows hear medium calls, they respond likewise, with medium intensity.
Why do crows sometimes caw when they see food? It's counterintuitive since they're drawing attention to themselves at the exact moment when they might want to enjoy their discovery in private.
Why do crows announce food if it attracts competitors?
In their study Fussing Over Food: Factors Affecting the Vocalizations American Crows Utter Around Food, authors Pendergraft and Marzluff conducted three experiments on crows to find out how and why they vocalize about food. They discovered that American crows only make these declarations of food if they must: "American crows avoid giving territorial medium-duration calls at food, probably to keep competitors naïve about the food's existence, but after other crows discover and gather around the food bonanza, they switch to short calls."
There are pros and cons of announcing food, and crows are very adept at using vocalizations to maximize their benefits. If they make a big announcement, they benefit by recruiting buddies to secure access to the food, increase their foraging efficiency, reduce predation risk, and increase status.
Whining Crow Baby Talk
The Whiny, Screechy, Squawky Sound of a Baby Crow
In my experience, not only do crow babies sound like they're whining, but they whine all the time. Anyone who's familiar with whining kids will recognize the unmistakable edge of whine in a crow baby's caw. If you hear a particularly incessant and yes, annoying crow calling outside making a noise you simply can't ignore, it's probably a crow baby.
Baby crows don't fully understand that their loneliness (or hunger or boredom) is not really an emergency and does not warrant the alarming noise they are making. Baby birds sound like they're in imminent danger all the time, but they're just "crying wolf." But until they learn better, the noise they make will be utterly alarming.
Last spring, a baby crow decided to claim the tree in my back yard as its playpen. While its parents were out foraging, that crow would whine for hours and hours. The only thing that would make it stop was if I'd go into the yard to keep it company. After awhile, those horrible squaws started to sound kind of cute. Babies may be little and new, but they sure know how to let you know exactly what they want.
Annoyance, Scolding, and Territory Disputes
Crows scold a lot. They're very cagey and suspicious by nature, and whenever something is mildly threatening, they complain about it. This scolding is more intense than a Companion Call but less intense than a Mobbing Call. These are medium-intensity warnings reserved for medium dangers.
Alarm Calls and Warnings of an Imminent Predator
A dog is sniffing around; a person gets too close; a car is coming; someone is encroaching on its territory; a predator is lurking near the nest! When they see a new, near, and active predator, crows will erupt in a volley of alarm, and there's no mistaking it.
Birds of all kinds constantly eavesdrop on each other to gain up-to-date information about possible dangers. That means that all birds use each other to survive and their vocalizations benefit all birds in general. If a mourning dove makes a warning sound, every bird within earshot will get the message, no matter what species.
Do crows have different sounds for different types of predators?
According to Brian Mertins, author of several papers about bird language, a person can learn how to interpret these warnings to know what kind of predator to look out for. "Knowing the bird language pattern of a bobcat, it’s possible to predict the approaching animal, sometimes as much as 30 minutes ahead of that animal’s arrival." He says that with practice, a person can learn to discern not only when there are predators present, but also what type of predator it is, how far away, how fast it's moving, if the animal is hunting or not, and if it knows you're there.
The Sound of Crows Mobbing a Predator
Mobbing is a thing many birds do to protect against predators. Individuals come together to harass or "mob" a predator by cooperatively attacking it. They don't usually get so riled up unless they have a good reason, like protecting their nest. It's not only crows that do this, but most people can probably remember seeing a bunch of crows pestering a larger bird: they chase, dive-bomb, and yell like crazy. Mobbing is how all the little guys gang up and defend against a predator.
Tips for Understanding and Communicating With Crows
Although even expert ornithologists don't know exactly how to interpret birdsong, here are some guidelines that can help you get a general sense of what those crows are trying to convey.
- In general, the more upset crows are, the more noise they make. When there's a threat, the caws get louder, longer, and closer together.
- The more crows that caw = the bigger the upset. In other words, you can judge the size of the issue by seeing how big a crowd of crows are chiming in.
- The six "voices" of birds are the six different types of vocalizations: songs, contact calls, and rattles (used when the bird is calm and relaxed); territorial maintenance, juvenile begging, and alarm. If you can discern the call's context, you can often interpret its meaning.
- With a little practice, you can learn to hear the emotion in the intensity of the caws.
- Some types of vocalizations are used in many circumstances, while others are rare and used very specifically. Caws are heard all the time; rattles are generally reserved for the most intimate situations and friends.
- If the caws are incessant and whiny, it's likely a baby crow wanting food or company or attention.
- If it's a repeating pattern (caw caw... caw caw... caw caw....) it's more likely a structured companion call of some sort, but if it's an erratic or explosive burst of sound, it's more likely to be a warning of danger.
- Crows listen to us, too. There is evidence that they can identify familiar voices (and unfamiliar ones) and that they can detect the difference between different human languages (like Japanese vs. Dutch, for example).
- Most people who befriend and feed crows use a whistle or some other auditory cue to get their birds' attention.
Hear the Difference Between Crows' Caw and Ravens' Croaks
Interesting Facts About Crow's Caws
- Crows are fairly chatty. Even if they're all alone, they'll call-and-repeat for hours. It's as If the sound of their own voices soothe them.
- Crows and ravens talk to themselves. They caw to themselves in isolation and they also use human language to amuse and soothe themselves.
- Crows' and ravens' sounds are similar, but they're not the same. They both say "caw", but the crows' is a raspy caw and the ravens' is more of a throaty croak or grunk.
- Crows have quite a large vocal range and are able to mimic many other sounds, including human voices, dogs' barking, car alarms, and more.
Can Crows Mimic Human Speech (Like Parrots Can)?
Could a crow learn to talk like a human? Yes, it can, although it likely won't know what it is saying. Like parrots, they use their syrinx to mimic noises they hear. If a crow uses human words, it's a clear sign that it has been exposed to humans intimately and may even have been hand-reared by a person. The most skilled talking crows are those found in captivity.
Crow Mimicking Human Speech
A Video of Me Trying to Communicate With the Crows in My Neighborhood
One summer, I went away on vacation for a couple weeks and within a few days of my return, I came out of my house to find a huge group of crows waiting for me, making a cacophony of caws. It was a quite a spectacle and I don't know what they were trying to communicate to me, but I know it was something!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.