Hoots, Crows, and Whistles: Criminals Using Animals Calls as Secret Signals

Little Owl calls were among the common animal called imitated by criminals.

European criminals liked to imitate the Little Owl. Little Owl from Pixbay, public domain.

A Little Owl’s cry pierced the night. It rebounded through the neighborhood, and from the other side of the house, a man dressed in black heard it. Lifting his hands to his mouth, he imitated a Yellow-bellied Toad. The man who’d made the owl cry smiled. His lookout was now in place. He slipped through the shadows to the back door, picked the lock, and crept into the darkness of the home.

A burglar picking a lock.

Burglary. Pixbay, public domain.

Criminals using animal calls as secret signals are a recurring theme in literature. “Hoot twice like a barn-owl and once like a screech-owl,” the dwarves told Bilbo when he burglarized the trolls in Tolkein’s The Hobbit. The signal was not only supposed to let the dwarves know if Bilbo was in trouble. Criminals used animals calls to localize and identify each other.

The trolls were turned to stone in The Hobbit.

The trolls were turned to stone in The Hobbit. Photo from Pixbay, public domain.

Animal Calls in Criminology

But does the burglar-animal call motif have any basis in history? Definitely, says Hanns Gross, the 19th century Austrian father of criminology.

“Contact calls” consist almost exclusively of animal imitations, especially of those animals that make noises at night. Of course, people committing a robbery in the woods or approaching a home for a burglary don’t call to each other by name or make any noise that would attract attention. An animal call, especially when well imitated, is never suspected, and when the criminals agree in advance [who will make which animal call], the calls are as clearly understood as the names themselves.

A rooster? That's among the animal calls no one suspects.

A rooster? That’s an animal call no one suspects. Photo from Pixbay, public domain.

 The rooster’s crow, the quail’s rhythmic whistling, and near water, frogs or the Yellow-bellied Toad, are all imitated, but owl hoots are the most popular of all. Owls are everywhere, in the woods, fields, mountains, swamps, in isolated areas, and close to human habitation. No one questions the hoot of an owl early in the evening or before dawn; hunters even use hoots in broad daylight when summoning each other in the woods. Although animals don’t fear an owl hoot, men have a superstitious dread of it; on hearing an owl hoot they would sooner stop their ears than watch their pockets. Based on how far apart the accomplices are, a Scops Owl or Little Owl hoot is used…. The Little Owl is used for greater distances.

Owl calls. Gross at p. 278.

Hanns Gross reduced two animal calls popular among criminals to musical notation. Both are Little Owl calls. The first is a whistle and used for shorter distances. The second is a cry and used for greater distances.

Animal Calls Indicate Accomplices

Does the practice of criminals imitating animal calls make any difference in a law enforcement investigation? Hanns Gross thought so:

Yellow-bellied Toad; one of the animal calls criminals used.

Near water, criminals liked to use the Yellow-bellied Toad croak. Yellow-bellied Frog Bombina variegata (Marek Szczepanek); Creative Commons license http://bit.ly/1E2Iv9D

 Under the circumstances, this matter can be important. When the question is whether a robbery in the woods or a burglary has been committed by a lone perpetrator or several accomplices, the investigator should ask the witnesses whether they heard an owl hoot shortly before or after the crime. If the answer is yes, the chances are slim it was a real owl hooting at the exact time and place of the crime. Law enforcement should keep their ears open for such sounds.

 Do criminals still use animal calls as secret signals today? Who knows? The urban jungle has largely replaced the woods as a favored place to commit a crime, and perhaps other signals have taken their place. But in a residential neighborhood, it might be worth asking if anyone heard an animal cry in the night.

Have you ever heard of a modern crime in which the criminals communicated with animal calls? Or can you offer another example from literature?

European Common Frog

European Common Frog.

Literature on point:

Hanns Gross, Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter (Graz. Austria: Leuschner & Lubensky’s, 1899) 278-79 (translation mine).

J.R.R. Tolkein, The Hobbit (London: George Allen & Unwin, 4th ed. 1978) 36.

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Ravens as Partners for Cadaver Dogs?

Raven in Yellowstone

Raven in Yellowstone National Park by Christopher May; shutterstock_283227410

Germany shocked the law enforcement world in 2010 with an ingenious idea: Why not use turkey vultures to search for dead bodies in murder investigations? Turkey vultures hunt with their sense of smell and scientists say they’re the best sniffers among the raptors. They’re naturally attracted to carrion. They can detect a dead mouse from a mile away and aren’t hindered by rough terrain. Could they be trained to distinguish human from animal bodies, be fitted with GPS devices, and help law enforcement solve cases?

Turkey vulture.

Turkey vulture. Morguefile free photos.

As great as the idea was, it met its demise in the sharp talons of the vulture’s biology. Vultures aren’t sociable. They’re all beaks and claws. They use projectile vomiting to defend themselves, spewing the rancid, corrosive mess up to ten feet. The German researchers couldn’t get them to cooperate and the project was quickly abandoned.

Should Germany have looked at ravens instead?

It’s not that vultures can’t be useful on cadaver searches. Cadaver dog handler Cat Warren admits to keeping an eye on turkey vulture kettles during her searches. But other wild birds offer clues, too. Hanns Gross, the Austrian father of criminology, kept his eye on European vultures and kites, but also on a different carrion-eating genus: the corvids. Ravens and crows. Here’s an example from his 19th century handbook on criminology:

Flying raven.

Flying raven. Morguefile free photos.

“The body of a murdered woman was once found in the following way: The teachers of the surrounding schools told the children to let them know if they noticed a flock of many crows, ravens, etc., anywhere; some of them made such a report, with the successful result that the murdered person was found.”

I say the Germans were experimenting with the wrong bird species. Shall we take a closer look at the raven?

 Ravens are sociable and super smart

Scientists consider corvids the most intelligent birds. They’ve even documented corvids using tools. They’re trainable. A big plus is that they’re affable to humans.

Raven totem pole.

Raven in Native American art. Morguefile free photos.

It’s no accident that the raven plays such a prominent role in Norse and American Indian mythology. Ornithologist Bernd Heinrich devotes three chapters in his book, Mind of the Raven, to the raven’s cooperation with other hunters: wolves, polar bears, cats, and humans. There are anecdotes of ravens spotting prey and leading predators to it. Ravens probably learned that large prey, in combination with a hunter, translated into food. As a reward, the ravens got a chance at the leftovers.

In fact, man’s first best friend might not have been the dog. It could have been the raven.

 A corvid, canine, and homo sapiens hunting triad?

Odin with his two wolves and ravens.

Odin sits atop his steed Sleipnir, his ravens Huginn and Muninn and wolves Geri and Freki nearby. By Lorenz Frølich (1895), public domain.

It may not be an accident, either, that the Norse god Odin took two ravens and two wolves with him on the hunt.

In order to track down the bases for raven mythology, modern anecdotes of interspecies hunting cooperation, and rumors that Eskimo hunters “talk” to ravens, Bernd Heinrich traveled to Inuit villages on the Canadian tundra. He found ravens everywhere, often in close association with the Eskimo dogs.

The Inuit told stories of hunters’ ability to communicate with overflying ravens in bygone times. They used incantations and called out the raven’s name, “tulugaq!” Ravens, they said, indicated the direction of the prey by wing tipping. “And after [the hunters] killed the caribou or the polar bear,” said one elderly Inuit, “they always left the raven the choicest tidbits of meat as a reward.” It wasn’t always the faithful dog, then, that accompanied the ancient hunter. The raven may have been there too.

Wolves are one of the raven's traditional hunting partners.

Wolf. Morguefile free photos.

Where they don’t have humans to help them, ravens are just as happy to work with canines. Research from Yellowstone National Park indicates that ravens are dependent on wolves to kill and open carcasses for them. Heinrich says that points to a relationship with an ancient evolutionary history.

Given that ravens also eat carrion and can spot it from the air, could they be trained to search for human bodies and work in cooperation with cadaver dogs and their handlers? Humans and canines are, after all, two of the raven’s traditional partners.

It’s an idea worth exploring. And it’s a more pleasant one than working with vultures.

Literature on point:

 

 

Cat Warren, What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013)

 

Bernd Heinrich: Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds (New York, Harper Collins, 1999). The quote appears on p. 252 of the Harper Perennial paperback edition.

Hanns Gross, Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter (3rd ed., Graz: Leuschner & Lubensky’s 1899) p.124.

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Tramp Signs: Secret Symbols of Criminals and Vagabonds

 

Tramp signs were somtimes carved into wood.

Criminals used to use secret tramp signs, sometimes carving them into wood. Photo AVN Photo Lab, Shutterstock.

A black shape emerges from the misty shadows of the night and slinks up to the door. A glint of light flashes from a knife. There’s a scratching sound as the man begins to whittle a symbol into the wood. You probably won’t be able to read what he’s carving, because it’s in a centuries-old secret language: the tramp signs of Europe.

Frequently used from the 17th to 19th centuries, these symbols provided secret information to other criminals and vagabonds. Tramp signs told which houses provided refuge and which were dangerous. Even if a criminal was illiterate, he could still read these symbols.

By the 20th century, law enforcement had deciphered many of the symbols. Here are few listed in a criminal investigator’s handbook:

 

Historical tramp signs from Europe. Hans Gross, Handbuch der Kriminalistik is a good source.

Historical tramp signs from Europe.

 

Some of these symbols became the basis for the hobo symbols that flourished in North American starting in the late 19th century and through the Depression. Compare the tramp signs above to some of these hobo symbols from North America:

Hobo signs

Ryan Somma, Key to a few hobo signs, National Cryptologic Museum, Creative Commons.

In Europe, however, tramp signs were also used by mischief-makers who were much more dangerous than hobos. Some tramp signs would tell a criminal which house to burglarize, which to burn, or even which occupants to murder. Here are two ominous examples from 19th century Europe:

Tramp signs from Germany.

Instructions to commit murder by arson found on a chapel in the forest in Germany. The first line means “In the night of the last quarter moon, the fourth house in the direction of the arrow will be attacked.” The symbols on the bottom line are the signatures of the participants. From Hans Gross, Handbuch, 1899.

 

Another example of tramp signs.

These symbols indicate plans to burglarize the church on Christmas night. The stones and the child wrapped in swaddling clothes indicate the date. Hans Gross, Handbuch, 1899.

In the modern age of cell phones, the need for such communication has largely died out, although police do occasionally still find tramp signs. In 2009, police in Vienna found several on houses, mailboxes, fences, and doors. You can view photographs here. One of the symbols used looked like an upside down table. That means “old people live here.”

A modern variation of tramp signs is warchalking, symbols on streets or lampposts indicating the availability of an open wireless access point.

Warchalking as a modern variation of tramp signs.

Maha, Warchalking on a street in Bamberg, Germany, Creative Commons

Have you ever seen secret symbols in a public place?

Literature on point:

Hanns Gross & Ernst Seelig, Handbuch der Kriminalistik (Berlin: J Schwietzer, 1954)

Hanns Gross, Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter als System der Kriminalistik (Graz, Austria: Leuschner & Lubensky’s Universitäts-Buchhandlung 1899)

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Cadaver Dogs in the 19th Century

A beagle tracks a scent. Soloviova Liudmyla, shutterstock.

A beagle tracks a scent. Soloviova Liudmyla, shutterstock.

A landscape of odors….

Compared to canines, humans smell in black and white. We live in a world of sight and sound, words and letters. If you wrote a novel for dogs, you’d have to use smells – it would be a scratch-and-sniff book. Dogs find their literature on the ground, on trees, and under bushes; a stroll in the woods is to browse through a library. They “see” the world as an aromatic landscape colored with scents we can’t even imagine.

The nose knows. MorgueFile free photo.

The nose knows. MorgueFile free photo.

It’s precisely that facility that makes dogs so useful to law enforcement. Their olfactory perception complements a detective’s visual perception and can offer critical clues in a criminal investigation.

Cadaver dogs begin their careers

Father of the murder bag.

Hanns Gross, father of forensic science in Austria. Public domain.

Systematic training for cadaver dogs began in the 1970s. Modern human remains detection dogs learn to distinguish the odors of human decomposition from those of animal decomposition and track them through varied terrains. But that doesn’t mean that no one ever used dogs for finding dead bodies before the 1970s. One of the first recorded instances of a court purposely using a dog to search for a murder victim occurred during the investigation of the Bavarian Ripper in 1809.

Hanns Gross, an Austrian criminologist and the father of modern forensic science, wrote about the need for cadaver dog searches as early as 1899:

Hanns Gross recommended this breed as a cadaver dog

Johann Elias Ridinger, Leithund, 18th c.; public domain

“Undertaking outdoor [searches] is difficult under any circumstances. Systematic searching is almost always impossible due to the size of the territory; success is due to chance. Only in one circumstance is outside assistance advisable: searching for a human body. For that purpose, a good tracking dog can be used. Not every bloodhound or Leithund [a 19th c. German breed similar to the Weimaraner] can be used, however; only a few dogs possess the right facilities for the task. But if the investigating magistrate needs help in such a case, it won’t suffice if he just orders: “Get me a tracking dog.” He most certainly won’t obtain any help in this manner. He must, as discussed above, prepare for war during peacetime. This is all the more necessary because you often find such dogs in completely unexpected places, and can’t find one on the spot when you need one.”

A watchdog breaks the case

Gross managed to find a good dog and described how it found a body quickly enough to exculpate the suspect:

William Henry Jackson, "Seek Dead," 1902; public domain. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

William Henry Jackson, “Seek Dead,” 1902; public domain. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

“A tanner in my district had a garden-variety watchdog that didn’t have a bit of hunting dog in him, but (I think it merely due to his voraciousness) could find every single piece of carrion within a huge perimeter. For that reason, the local hunters borrowed him to find all the game they shot that their hunting dogs couldn’t find. The tanner’s dog found everything that was animal and dead. He would come to a standstill for wounded deer as well as a long-dead cat, but he found both. Once, when we needed to search for a missing cretin, presumed to have been murdered by his brother-in-law, this dog found the cretin’s body deep in the woods. At that point it was still possible to determine that the cretin had died as a result of an epileptic seizure, but a few days later, it might not have been possible to make a postmortem finding that no violence had occurred, and the suspicion would have followed the brother-in-law for the rest of his life.”

A landscape of scent. Morguefile photos.

A landscape of scent. Morguefile photos.

The dogs in this case and the Bavarian Ripper investigation proved their worth. One discovered the bodies, providing the crucial piece of evidence to convict a murderer, and the other found the body quickly for investigators to prove there was no murder, and exonerated an innocent suspect. Hats off to cadaver dogs and their forerunners in the 19th century!

What are some of the unusual things your dog has found with its nose?

Literature on point:

Hanns Gross, Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter (3rd ed., Graz: Leuschner & Lubensky’s 1899) pp. 122-124 (translation mine).

Cat Warren, What the Dog Knows (New York: Touchstone 2013)

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Birth of the “Forensic Kit” or “Murder Bag”

forensic kit

Sherlock holmes and the open safe; OSTILL/istockphoto.com

Sherlock Holmes had his magnifying glass. A modern detective will bring things like evidence tags, fingerprint kits, and latent bloodstain reagents.

What did a 19th-century detective pack into his forensic kit to bring to a crime scene?

Hanns Gross, father of criminology

Hanns Gross (sometimes spelled Hans Gross), the Austrian father of criminology. Public domain.

Let’s ask Hanns Gross (1847-1915), an Austrian who established forensic science as an academic discipline. Gross studied law and worked as a detective (Untersuchungsrichter) before founding the first university institute of criminology. His Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter (Handbook for Criminal Investigation), a field book for criminal investigators that was published in 1893, caused a global tsunami in police work, washing away outdated techniques. Gross integrated science and psychology into criminal investigations. He also developed the field of crime scene photography. In translated form, the Handbook became a standard work worldwide.

In the Handbook, Gross lists the items a detective should keep packed in his forensic kit in order to be ready to process a crime scene at a moment’s notice. The list is long, but here are some of the important contents:

  • paper for taking notes
  • pen and pencil, ink
  • ruler or measuring tape
  • pair of compasses for measuring minute distances
  • pedometer for measuring distance in paces
  • transparent paper for tracing outlines, drawings, and blood splatter
  • plaster to make casts
  • test tubes for samples of stomach contents of dead bodies to test for arsenic
  • candles for illumination during nighttime investigation
  • crucifix for the purposes of putting a dying witness under oath for a statement
  • directional compass to provide orientation for the detective’s sketch of the crime
  • bars of soap, not only for washing, but for taking impressions of small items like keys
  • brush for cleaning debris out of a footprint before taking a cast
  • magnifying glass
  • tape, to which small traces of evidence adhere
  • candy for calming children and inducing them to make statements
  • first-aid kit, for victims or the detective himself
 Hanns Gross recommended that detective pack candy into his "murder bag" to induce children to give statements.

Yum, old fashioned candy! Hanns Gross recommended investigators bring candy to the crime scene. It can induce children to give statements.

 Which of these items seem old-fashioned? And which were ahead of their time? Do you think anything’s missing?

forensic kit

Hanns Gross’ depiction of a detective bag to contain the forensic kit. Public domain.

Because Hanns Gross developed criminal investigation photography, I was surprised not to see a camera on his list. He might have included that in later editions of his book.

(c) Text Ann Marie Ackermann 2014

 

Literature on point:

Hanns Gross, Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter als System der Kriminalistik (Graz, Austria: Leuschner & Lubensky’s Universitäts-Buchhandlung 1899)

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