Do Animals Talk? Scientists Are About to Eavesdrop on Crows to Find Out If They Have Conversations

Want to learn what crows talk about when you’re not around? You have to record them in stealth mode.

In a union between fields, biologists and sound engineers at the University of Washington have come together to study crows on the roof of their science building. The biologists noticed that the nocturnal crows would stop at the roof before and after roosting, and would make cacophonous noise.

flock_of_crows 15,000 crows visit the roof of the science building at The University of Washington Bothell. University of Washington

The researchers wanted to study the crows to understand why they were being so noisy, and perhaps to help them understand what the different calls mean.

However, they didn’t want to go to the roof and observe the birds in person. The effect that they would have on the birds by doing that would be sort of like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle—the mere act of observing them can influence them to behave differently. Crows can even imagine that they’re being spied on.

So instead of going to the roof to record the birds, the researchers plan to surreptitiously leave remotely-operated recording equipment where the animals would land. They will then record the noises with technology that could differentiate one bird from another.

"It's still a challenging task, but we can use the audio signals to look for patterns and learn more about what the birds may be communicating," said Shima Abadi, an audiologist at the University of Washington, Bothell, according to Phys.org.

Students at the University of Washington have tested their equipment in the parking lot, but later plan to bring it to “the wild,” or the roof of the science building. They plan to take the recordings and analyze the different sounds that the birds make, how often, the length of the sounds, and the pauses between then. Then they hope to understand the purpose of such noises, and whether or not they are engaging in a complex form of communication.

Corvids, such as crows and ravens, have been the subject of many studies demonstrating their intelligence. They can solve complex problems, share food and even create tools.

The research was published in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.

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