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.

27 Comments

  1. Robert Brown
    Jul 3, 2016

    I have been burglarized repeatedly for the past year. While I was in the home on some instances. I began noticing a piercing shrill when I would hear noise in my home. As I would approach the room in question the noise would become more franic sounding. When entering the room it would be in total disarray. These criminals didn’t steal big things at first. It look more like misplaced or things moved, with it mounting over time. I called the police each time, wheras they finally told me that I’m crazy, and not call them anymore or else they will file charges against me for filing false reports. Its a year later, my basement was flooded. Guess what, all the pipes were gone under the house, upon better inspection the central heat and air was totally diassembled in the attic, all placed towards a large attic fan opening ready to move. By this time they had cleaned out the house of most of the contents. Security cameras? Stolen 3 times, outdoor landscape lighting; wires cut every time I had them repaired. Copper wiring half removed. I work out of town a lot for extended periods (2 to 3 months as a traveling nurse practitioner). I am an educated man (doctorate degree). I live in a decent older historic neighborhood so if this can happen to me, it can happen to anyone. I have been accused of being on drugs, staging my own burglaries, and being shizophrenic and bi-polar. My life was just fine 47 years, then I was picked. Oh by the way my identity has been stolen. I’m now going into foreclosure, and trying to repair all this damage. Pay attention to your surroundings closely, and note all those night time noises. I have not heard those strolls and cries since all this stopped.

    • Ann Marie
      Jul 3, 2016

      Interesting, and thanks for commenting. Good luck on ironing out all the consequences. It sounds unpleasant and I hope it never happens to you again.

    • Madelein Van Greunen
      Feb 11, 2018

      How can I get in contact with you please please

      • Ann Marie
        Feb 25, 2018

        Madelein, do you mean me or Robert Brown?

    • Rosemarie Martin
      Nov 27, 2018

      When we first moved to this town, the crime rate was extremely low. We could leave our doors open at night go for walks at night etc.. Now we have to keep everything locked up and lights everywhere. We are surrounded by meth dealers/thieves that use fireworks and animal calls. Yesterday I heard it early in the afternoon. All these people that all know each other are all moving in to houses close together. The cops do very little and the code compliance officers are lazy and usually not willing to enforce whatever code compliance laws we have. This is the only township that isn’t incorporated in the United States, and a lot of bad people move here to get away with running junkyards and all the noise that goes with it in residential backyards. It is getting worse. It is hard to move away from things since we own our house and is almost worthless because of the neighbors. I went for a walk last night and I swear a young kid was following me, possibly one of the runners that makes the animal noise. This state is open carry, and I always carry a gun now. I would hate to have to use it, but I will not hide in my house out of fear. I kinda wonder if some of the police are getting paid because so little is done even after the law gets involved. What a joke.

      • Ann Marie
        Dec 3, 2018

        That sounds awful, Rosemarie. Good luck in dealing with this.

    • Alana
      Jan 30, 2019

      I sure hope he is ok. Sounds about like my problem. I can tell you they aren’t ordinary people doing this. That’s why you can’t see them and they cannot be fought. I’ve lost everything due to whatever or whomever is doing this. I try to be the positive happy love everybody person because in all my readings, when you quit being bothered by it all, eventually it will pass. Never call the police because they want you to look crazy and have it be on record with the authority’s. Good luck. Email me if you want to talk. 43 years old and life in shambles

      • Ann Marie
        Jan 30, 2019

        Good luck to you, Alana.

    • Alexander the Great
      Jul 7, 2020

      sounds like the cops were in on it

  2. Cindy Kerr
    Jun 12, 2017

    I live in the suburbs next door to an elementary school that has a large playground.

    Late at night a couple of weeks ago, I heard one single hoot of a great horned owl and immediately knew it was a phony hoot. It sounded very authentic, but great horned owl hoot five times in a row, never just once. So, I started listening closely and eventually heard a couple of different types of bird calls, also. Even a whistling type noise.

    I installed a floodlight with a hidden security camera (with audio) on the back porch which is closest to the school’s playground. I discovered people were coming to the schoolyard late at night. It picked up several voices and recorded them remarkably well.

    It appears they are a group of 5 or 6 homeless men about 17-22 years old. They come to the school playground and hang out all night. In one audio, they can be heard contemplating breaking a window of my house, making loud banging notices to wake me up, and calling out really loudly, “Yo, Bitch.” I’m beyond freaked out.

    The police are patrolling the area. They haven’t been caught, yet. Interestingly, I noticed on the audio recording that they never verbalized with each about the police’s impending presence, such as “run, it’s the cops” or “quick, let’s get outta here.” On the audio recording, one minute they were screaming and cussing, then suddenly it went deadly silent. 100% silent. Nobody said a word. That tells me this is well rehearsed and their behavior is very calculated. When they saw the car lights approaching on my street, they took off quickly and remarkably very quietly.

    I have no idea how long they’ve been coming here, but apparently they know about me and know that I’m female and live alone in my home. I also don’t know why they are intimidating/harrassing/scaring me. I heard on the audio one of them suddenly got choked and started coughing violently, so they could be smoking on a crack pipe or something similar.

    I started carrying a razor sharp 9″ Chefs knife to bed with me, because that’s how upset this whole ordeal is making me. I don’t even live in the city, near a downtown area, or even in a bad neighborhood. I live in the suburbs on the safe side of town.

    • Ann Marie
      Jun 13, 2017

      Wow, that sounds like a stressful situation, Cindy. I hope those guys get caught soon.

      It’s very interesting that they used a Great-horned Owl call to communicate and that’s what alerted you to their presence.

      Good luck with this situation.

  3. Christian ware
    Aug 3, 2017

    Some local young (mid to late 20’s), theives have been using owl calls to signal one another here around my neighborhood. i know these arent real owls because i have spent my fair share of time in the wilderness,(i was a Soldier in the U.S.ARMY for 8 years), in a combat division the whole time in two different countries and 2 different conflicts. i am also an avid outdoorsman and nature enthusiast. they, (the thieves), use the signal of an owl for locationing of each other and also as an awareness signal to notify one another when homeowners or law enforcement officers may b outside creating a potential threat to their freedom. Just a little FYI for anyone out there that someone may deem crazy because theyre hearing owls or other animals that they know are not real. I know to the untrained ear animals do sound real but I’m no fool & I’m going to catch me some thieves.

    • Ann Marie
      Aug 4, 2017

      It would be interesting, if you ever get a chance to tape those calls, to run them past an ornithologist or bird watcher to see what they think. A good bird watcher will know all the local owl calls and be able to identify a fake one pretty quickly. Please be careful about catching thieves yourself. That can get dangerous. It’s better to call the police if you notice anything suspicious.

  4. Joanne Bate
    Apr 10, 2018

    Please I need your help for a while now people have been going on to the yard where my horses are and hurting them. I have had cameras listening devices all prove that this is fact. However I cannot catch them. I have to recently had to have 2 put to sleep due to the horrendous state the poor things have been left in. If I call to the yard I hear allsorts of animal sounds which I am certain are passing messages on to one another. They range from owls cows various birds. In fact at 3 in the morning it is sometimes like the middle of the day. The other night crows were speaking to one another. Please help

    • Ann Marie
      Apr 10, 2018

      Thanks for commenting, Joanne. First of all, have you called the police? That’s important if your animals have been injured because if anyone hurts them, it’s a crime. Second, consider the possibility that wild animals might be causing the problem. It’s natural for crows to “speak” with each other. Coyotes and owls might do the same thing and they’re more dangerous. One of my neighbor’s dogs got attacked by an owl that left bloody gashes on its back, probably because the dog approached the owl’s babies. Good luck with sorting out your problem and I hope your horses stay safe.

      • joanne bate
        Nov 11, 2018

        thank you for your reply. I have contacted the [police several times and like poor Robert been accused of being mentally ill on drugs etc. When the police have been called the people have been seen to hide in the trees and then carry on as soon as the police have left. I truly am at my witts end as throughout the night the cameras show my horses appearing to dehydrate within an hour, which cannot happen as such a dramatic change would take days to occur, ads the poor horses appear to be skeletal. It has been mentioned that lots of blood is being taken to make them look like they do. I have tried everything to catch them but just cant. I can hear loads of rustling in the trees but never see anything . They appear to have given up as when this first started my Dictaphone sounds like a fight is ongoing with the horses now they just stand there ready for whatever. My camera also shows one with a metal clamp in its neck. I have tried everything even asked the rspca to have them, but as I am not hurting them, they wont get involved

      • Ann Marie
        Nov 15, 2018

        I’m so sorry to hear this story, Joanne, and I think you are right in setting up a camera. If the camera shows clamps on the horses’s neck, that is evidence you should show the authorities. Is there a way you can lock your animals up for the night?

  5. Mike
    Oct 16, 2018

    Has the prob stopped?

    • Ann Marie
      Oct 16, 2018

      Which of the above problems are you referring to, Mike?

  6. Henry
    Jan 3, 2019

    I hunt and camp out too much to be tricked into believing a human hoot could ever closely resemble the hoot of a real owl… There’s a world of difference.

    I’m more prone to believe a criminal would use other sounds to mask their own noise… Like fireworks nearby.

    • Ann Marie
      Jan 3, 2019

      As a hunter, Henry, I’m sure you’re quite good at recognizing animal calls. I’m a bird watcher, and I’ve heard other bird watchers give a darn good imitation of Eastern Screech Owls, so who knows? Of course, most people probably aren’t that good at distinguishing real owl calls from fake ones, so perhaps the criminals reverted to animal calls to communicate.

      They didn’t use the calls to mask the sounds of their activities, but rather to communicate things like their location and what they were doing.

      Thanks for commenting!

  7. Kate
    Dec 8, 2019

    In my area criminal gangs use hand claps to signal.

    I’ve had a group of them hanging around my place pretty much 24/7 for a few days now. Intimidation, home invasion and kidnapping are their specialty around here.

    Called the police the first night and, when they couldn’t find any trace of them, the officers who came to the door to talk clearly doubted my word and weren’t impressed to have been called out.

    As soon as the police were gone the claps started up again.

    • Ann Marie
      Jan 4, 2020

      That’s odd. Any chance you could record them if it happens again?

  8. Legion
    Dec 29, 2019

    I came here searching for stories from the US concerning animal cries and criminology. Actual confirmed cases, in specific. This comment section allowed me to achieve this goal, and I am grateful for this post, Ann Marie.

    As for my own case – I’m currently tracking a couple of individuals that used to come around my neighborhood making Tawny Owl calls, here in Poland. They’re criminals, I already know where two of them live, I know their facebook pages and, through this, of their friends and families. To keep things vague – it’s my job. They’re the rats and I’m the Pied Piper. Usually, I have to go severely out of my way to find such individuals; to entice them, lure them and then snare them. These little rats came snooping about on their own, and found me! I guess they weren’t as smart as they thought. I will thank them for this comfort later. I’m thinking of going to their homes and start playing some pig noises. Maybe they’ll get the pun.

    • Ann Marie
      Jan 4, 2020

      Haha! I’m just curious, because I’m a bird watcher — how do you distinguish between real Tawny Owl calls and people imitating the owls? I suppose nowadays the modern criminal could use a recording of an animal call that might be able to fool even the best biologist.

  9. Princess
    Jul 11, 2020

    I have had neighbours sneaking into my home for the last few months now but I am unable to get my landlord to take me seriously. I have just heard one of them making an owl noise so I googled it and it lead me to this page.

    • Ann Marie
      Aug 4, 2020

      Good luck dealing with the problem. Please consider the possibility that it was a real owl. As a birdwatcher, I’ve recognized several species of owls calling at night just by listening through my bedroom window.

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