Do You Speak Crow?

By Vera Buhl (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( via Wikimedia Commons

This afternoon I performed a Dr. Dolittle-style feat of intra-species interpretation. I got buzzard on my Kentish garden list, entirely thanks to our resident carrion crows – whose sudden taking up of the “Oh no! A buzzard!” call had alerted me to the presence of Buteo buteoabove our street.*I knew the racket kicking up outside meant that something interesting was flying over – though I was not immediately sure it would be a buzzard – and if I hadn’t bothered to learn a few words of crow, I would never have known. As when visiting any foreign country, it pays to learn a few words of bird if you want to aim for full immersion in their world.

In fact, becoming tuned in to bird song and call is a bit like having a third eye, or more appropriately, a third ear. Once opened, never closed: it becomes impossible to tune out birds, whether you’re identifying a snatch of yellowhammer song through an open car window or picking up geographically inappropriate species on the soundtrack of films or TV programmes (American crow in Berlin, anyone?)**. This drives relatives and friends to distraction, I’m sure, but the skill pays dividends beyond back garden buzzards or movie trivia: for example, anticipating a sparrowhawk’s dash through a woodland canopy thanks to a chorus of alarms from resident tits, or beginning to look for a treecreeper before you were even really aware of hearing its thin, sibilant calls.

In short, I thoroughly recommend taking steps towards becoming a fluent speaker of bird.   Unfortunately there’s no Rosetta Stone for ‘Avianese’, or whatever you might call it, though beginners could do a lot worse than picking up Simon Barnes’ short, sweet book ‘Birdwatching with your Eyes Closed’ (The Podcast is free). That will take you through common British bird songs, at least. To learn some of the more subtle or indistinct calls nothing beats time in the field. So go outside! Let your ears take the lead, and may the birds themselves be your best bird guides. Like the ever-vigilant crows which patrol the back gardens of my street, they may well lead you to something new.

*–Long footnote alert–

I say buzzard, but it could have been any out-of-place large raptor as far as I can yet tell – though a friend who lives in Reading claims to be able to hear a distinction between the crow alarm cry for buzzard and red kite. With the astonishing red kite density in their neighbourhood, I wouldn’t be surprised, and it certainly highlights the fact that non-human ‘language’ can be a lot more complex than we give it credit for. I’ve searched for raptor-harrying calls using this excellent online bird sound resource, and the closest I can find are for goshawk and sparrowhawk. Interestingly, neither sound quite like the call for buzzard. Crows are clearly excellent birders!

**It’s in ’The Bourne Ultimatum’. And yes, I’m geeky enough to have spotted the mistake! According to this site one also shows up in Europe in the first film, along with a blue jay.


One thought on “Do You Speak Crow?

  1. This post sums up precisely how I feel about my birding. Without my ability in detecting the myriad of bird calls, songs and subsongs, I would not be satisfying my bird surveyor role’s needs. Put more simply, birding by sound (see The Sound Approach to birding) is a science in itself and needs a whole lot more attention paid to it. Being tuned into the birds is indeed like having a third eye, or even a fourth.

    Kind Regards


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