Crows have a reputation as being not only highly intelligent birds, but also very social ones. The loud, intense cawing of a crow is an unmistakable sound, and is used as a form of communication between individual birds and by larger flocks.
But is the ability to master human speech among their impressive cognitive abilities? Keep reading as we look into crow communication and answer the question: can crows talk?
Crows rely on a number of different vocalizations to communicate with each other, including caws, clicks and rattling sounds. They are excellent mimics and have the ability to copy a vast repertoire of sounds, including human speech, and other bird and animal noises.
But despite crows being able to produce noises that imitate words and phrases spoken by humans, this does not equate to actually being able to talk, initiate conversations, or even understand any sense of the words they are uttering.
Mimicking and talking are two different skills, and although crows that spend a significant amount of time in human company can be trained to repeat words in such a way that they are clearly identifiable as “speech”, it is unclear how much understanding of the meanings or context crows could ever have.
Stay with us as we take a closer look at all types of vocalizations made by crows, and investigate some of the popular beliefs around the language skills of these highly intelligent corvids.
Crows are excellent mimics and can copy human speech
Crows are highly social birds and use a range of vocalizations to stay in constant communication with each other, including caws, rattles, clicks, patterns and coos. Each different sound and combination appears to have a particular meaning, which according to researchers is understood by other crows.
Crows have several distinct types of call that serve as a form of communication between family members, mated pairs and other crows from the same group. Avian experts have analyzed the probable meanings behind each one to understand more about corvid communication.
These are possibly the most common calls associated with crows. Caws can be either low pitched, or louder, harsher sounds in response to the situation and company. Recognition of members of the same family or group will be marked with a greeting of frequent, repetitive, gentle caws.
Danger is signified with a more shrill caw, in an attempt to scare off hostile birds. These loud, aggressive caws summon group members, effectively bringing strength in numbers, to see off any potential threat. Worrying situations, such as the discovery of a dead crow, are also vocalized with a series of repetitive, powerful caws.
Loud singular caws are used to alert other family members to gather at a food source, especially one that a crow has observed a human habitually leaving food at.
Contact calls, a series of unhurried, level caws, followed by a pause while waiting for a response, are a common form of crow communication, thought to be a crow announcing its presence and waiting to hear if any crows from their “group” are nearby. These caws are not intimidating, do not increase in intensity, and may be answered by similar-sounding caws if familiar company is in the neighborhood.
Carrion Crow cawing
Mated pairs of crows may frequently be heard making low-pitched rattling sounds to each other. Juvenile crows may also emit a clicking sound to attract the attention of their parents. The precise meaning of these sounds is unclear to us, although they form a valuable element of communication between crows that know each other.
The courtship rituals of crows include patterns of gentle cooing, quiet singing and nuzzling noises that are a much less grating call than the harsher cawing that is associated with warnings or territorial defense.
An American Crow calling for a mate
Birds make sounds using an organ called the syrinx, a double-chambered voicebox, which is controlled and moved to produce different sounds and pitches. Crows are highly skilled at using this organ, and their mastery at mimicry derives from their ability to control their syrinx with great skill.
Talented mimics, crows can learn and copy more than 100 different sounds, including human speech, calls of other birds and animals, and even mechanical sounds such as vehicles and alarms.
Crows demonstrate an advanced sense of recall and remember human faces, sounds they have heard and experiences they have been exposed to.
With repetitive training and exposure, copycat crows do have the ability to mimic any human sounds and words they hear, although it is believed that they have no understanding of the meaning of what they are “saying”.
Similarly, humans can imitate the cawing sounds made by crows, but can only guess at the meaning behind the different sounds.
American Crow siblings arguing over food
Crows and other corvids living in close company with humans can be taught to repeat up to around 100 human words and phrases they have been exposed to hearing on a regular basis. Crows can be trained to reproduce human sounds in so-called “parrot fashion”, although a crow’s pronunciation of words is not quite as accurate as that of parrots.
However, if you think you’re going to be able to hold a full-blown two-way conversation with a crow, you’ll be disappointed as their speech is limited to mimicking sounds rather than voicing the thoughts that are in their heads.
A pair of hooded crows communicating
It is a cruel myth that a crow can talk if you split its tongue. Vocal sounds made by crows originate in their throats and an organ called the syrinx; the tongue does not play any major role. In humans, the teeth, tongue and lips all work to produce speech sounds. Crows do not have teeth or lips, and the tongue is not used to produce sounds.
In addition to being barbaric, splitting a crow’s tongue may result in the bird being unable to communicate and eat properly, and is an incredibly cruel and unnecessary practice.
Perched American Crow calling from a fence post
Although crows are highly intelligent birds, their list of many talents falls short of actually being capable of independent, free-flowing human speech. Crows that live in captivity with human company can be taught to mimic words or talking, but no matter how much training is offered, will never be able to initiate conversation or communicate their thoughts with people using speech.
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