Listening to crows converse

Jerry Apps
Crows are highly intelligent birds—it’s easy to ignore them and take them for granted.

Back when I was a kid on the farm, maybe ten years old, I remember one Saturday Pa asking if I’d like to ride along with him to see a fellow farming on the other side of Plainfield.  “Sure,” I said.  Saturday usually meant lots of work to do, and riding along with Pa seemed a great way to leave behind the several chores I ordinarily would have to do on a Saturday.

“The fellow has something I want you to see,” Pa said.

“What?” I asked, always interested in stuff that Pa wanted me to see.

“It’ll be a surprise,” Pa said, smiling.

Now I was really curious, as I wondered what a farmer west of Plainfield would have that was different from what we had on our farm.  Soon we were driving through the village of Plainfield and into farm country. Not long later, we pulled into a driveway of a farmstead, similar to many in the area.  Nothing special here, I thought.

We got out of the car and the fellow Pa wanted to see came out of the house and began talking to Pa.  I stayed near the car.  I couldn’t hear what they were talking about, but Pa motioned for me to come with them as they walked toward the corncrib.  Seemed like an ordinary corncrib.  We had one just like it at our farm.

The fellow pulled open the corn crib door and entered, with Pa and me following behind.  Then I saw it, a big black crow sitting on a little perch in the back of the corncrib.  The farmer said to crow, “Hello.”

The crow, with a rather high-pitched voice, said, “Hello.”  Wow!  A talking crow. 

Then the farmer said, “Jimmy Crow,” And the crow said “Jimmy Crow.”  I had never seen anything like it—a crow speaking words I could understand. 

This is what Pa wanted me to see and hear. I’ve never forgotten the experience.  Now so many years later, I did some research on talking crows.  One report I read said that a crow living in close company with humans can be taught to repeat as many as a 100 words and phrases.

A few weeks ago, on one of those summer-like autumn days, I was sitting outside the cabin at the farm, enjoying the day.  “What are you doing?” my son, Steve, asked.  There was work to be done and I was doing little of nothing.

“Listening to the crows talk to each other,” I said.  And they were.  Several of them were perched in the windbreak just west of the cabin, and several more were in the pine trees a hundred yards or so south of the cabin. Both groups were cawing loudly. 

Crows are highly social birds and they do try to stay in constant communication with each other.  In addition to keeping in touch with each other, they have a variety of calls, including one indicating danger may be near. Crows are highly intelligent birds—it’s easy to ignore them and take them for granted.

THE OLD TIMER SAYS:  There is much about crows that we don’t know.

Jerry Apps

Jerry Apps, born and raised on a Wisconsin farm, is Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of more than 35 books, many of them on rural history and country life. For further information about Jerry's writing and TV work, go to or contact him