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.

6 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.

  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.

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