During winter, many songbirds live a quieter life. However, Corvids (crow family, Corvidae), can still be heard and are one of the most accessible birds to start learning bird calls, because:
- They are found throughout the UK.
- They typically call throughout the year.
- They are loud! (You will have definitely heard many of the calls before)
Corvids don’t make very pleasant sounds compared to many other birds and they all make quite harsh vocalisations. BUT this makes it easier to identify them as a family and a great starting point for learning your bird calls.
The crow’s most common call is a drawn out repeating bark. Each bark usually lasts for just under a second and repeats around five times. The keen eyed amongst you will have noticed we have lumped the carrion crow (Corvus corone) in with the hooded crow (Corvus cornix). These two species are pretty much indistinguishable via their call. Luckily the populations in the UK are visually and geographically distinct. The hooded crow exists mainly in Scotland and Ireland and has a black head (the hood) and a grey body, whereas the carrion crow exists everywhere else and is fully black.
Common ravens (Corvus corax) have a similar appearance to carrion crows but are larger in size. Their call has a similar repetition rate to that of the crow, but is deeper in pitch and can be described as more guttural. It is much less harsh compared to the crow and tones are cleaner.
The call of the rook (Corvus frugilegus) has a similar harshness and tonal composition to the crow, but the timings are generally different. Instead of making a series of calls the rook will make one longer call. However, rooks will tend to call when there are multiple of them about. Therefore, you have to be mindful that it sounds like a repeating call when they call together, as a result on a recording this can seem like there is a crow and not a rook.
Some say that the western jackdaw (Coloeus monedula) is named after their call. And although this is unlikely to be the case it is a useful device to remember their call. The jackdaw makes a series of very short sharp ‘jacks’, slightly squeaky compared to the Crow but nowhere near a nice clean tone. Again jackdaws will ‘jack’ much more when flocking together.
Eurasian magpies (Pica pica) make a very anthropomorphic sound with a very fast rat-tat-tat-tat-tat. Commonly likened to a football rattle or the fastening of a ratchet, the fast repetitive call is also known as a chatter. The magpie can also emit a hiss but you are much less likely to hear that.
Eurasian jays (Garrulus glandarius) arguably produce the most unpleasant of the UK Corvid calls, a screech which sounds like a continuous burst of the magpie’s chatter. Interestingly, the jay is named after its call via its genus Garrulus, which translates to ‘chatter’ or ‘noisy’ in Latin. Their call covers most of the jay’s interactions but is more commonly heard during the autumn when the jay is intensely caching acorns and beech nuts. The jay can also mimic other birds, but this makes identification very difficult!
The red-billed chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) makes a similar call to the jackdaw, i.e. a short sharp call. However, unlike the jackdaw the call does not abruptly end and fades away slightly. The chough is also the least distributed of all the UK Corvids and is typically only found on the western coasts of Britain and Ireland. The chough is also potentially named after its call, and could be the reason for the confusion over the jackdaw’s name as jackdaws were sometimes referred to as choughs in mediaeval English.