Hoots, Crows, and Whistles: Criminals Using Animals Calls as Secret Signals
Little Owl calls were among the common animal called imitated by criminals.

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.

Written by
Ann Marie
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  • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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

      • Hi All,
        Yes I have been going through this too! Not burglarized that I know of…but repeated dents & scratches on my car. I feel like they have been in my house also…One is the drug dealer that lives behind me who makes a fucken racket every time I smoke in my back yard. Seems like they are all moving here and we are county …not city. I feel like the Sheriff is even in on it and they have dog fights every single night right across the street from my bedroom. I complained to sheriff and Sonoma County Animal control about a year ago and now I am being punished. This is some Cartel shit!! Scary really! They have hurt my little dog too! Feel like I have to sell my mobile home & go while I still have some sanity left. I hear much of the same thing with you guys so I know it is not in my head!! Thanks!!!

      • I’ve been going through these things as well but it’s not bc they want to steal anything. Idk really what their (yes plural) motive is behind this but I’m pretty sure the father of my 4 children have something to do with it. We’ve been together 10 years and these crazy things have been happening to me for 6 of those years. He convinced my family and everyone just about (live in a very small town) in strung out on drugs (I most definitely am NOT), and that I’m losing my mind and need to go somewhere. I put a voice recorder in our house for unnamed reasons and heard him and another female having sex in our house, in our bed! That’s just the tip of the iceberg though. Its so much that itd take a few days to tell all. Even though he’s part of it, I think it’s something bigger than just him having an affair. I also found out he’s on meth pretty good and the b***h he had in my house come to find out is not only a girl that will do whatever for drugs but she’s also an informant for this county and surrounding counties. I see drones every single day, mainly at night when the owl is hooting, birds chirping back and forth, crickets chirping, frogs croaking- all at the same time in the winter 🤔 not normal at all. I just need some reassurance I guess bc as much as I do ignore these things, I have come to develop a fear for my life and possibly my children. I do believe I’ve been drugged, poisoned, or something at times. Anyways, good luck and Godspeed to the rest of you!!

      • This is obviously an old thread but i. Would like to talk . I’ve had all the above issues in this thread and had to leave ..been arrested for reporting thefts and break-ins ..

    • I GET THE ANIMAL CALLS TOO AND RECORD THEM. they were all suddenly swarming me when i let the doggie out. 3 pound dog. they were all trying to lure her into the street so their freinds would run over her. theyd use bikes and stand by the mailbox for 15 minutes. pretend to teach the kids how to ride bikes in front of my house.
      then when i suddenly stopped letting her out front i began taking her to the back all the swarming stopped. suddenly no one was in front of the house. it all came to a stop.

  • 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.

    • 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.

  • 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.

    • 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.

  • 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

    • 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.

      • 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

      • 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?

  • 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.

    • 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!

    • I also know what owls sound like and like u didn’t believe humans shooting would resemble an owl until I heard a couple dudes talking and laughing about using owls sounds different hoots n how many times is different codes for them and they start d hooting and they were just as good as a real owl if not better

      • There are some bird watchers out there who can do an excellent job imitating various birds — I’ve heard them. So why not criminals as well?

  • 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.

  • 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.

    • 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.

    • I know gangs like ms13, crips and bloods speak in calls and other tactic ways to covertly send messages. If your the target it is good to keep a close eye out and try and have witnesses. Consider staying in areas with lots of other people to deter attacks and violations of your rights. Maintain a audio and video recorder with you and double back on them to identify the person/s if safely possible. New technology is available to place sensors as triggers to record activity.

      • I actually have heard fake owls a few different times.i actually don’t think the ones I heard was criminals but rather the police .each time I heard them close to where I lived someone in the neighborhood got raided or something.i am now hearing bird chirping & whistling and I believe it is also fake.it isn’t too many.sounds like one or 2 n it’s only at times I don’t think they would be chirping n I don’t know much about bird calls but both times I heard the owls right away it seemed weird n made me feel like something wasn’t right .I feel the same way now.how can I try to find out without putting myself at risk?

      • Thanks for commenting, Jennifer. As a bird watcher, I’d say the best way to distinguish between real and fake owl calls is to learn what real owls sound like. Find out what owl species live in your area. You can probably find their calls online. Some females, e.g. the Long-eared Owl, have their own calls, separate from the males. Some frogs can sound like birds and it wouldn’t hurt to learn their calls too. Once you get to know the real animals, it should be a lot easier to pick out a human (although, I have to admit I’ve heard humans do pretty good imitations of Screech Owls!). Mockingbirds also sing a night sometimes, and they are great imitators. Do you live in an area where Mockingbirds are common? It’s possible they were chirping and whistling.

        All in all, though, if the police are in your neighborhood using some kind of coded system to communicate with each other, the best reaction would be to leave them to their business. The chances are much higher that the police would communicate by radio and not owl calls, but either way, interfering with a police investigation could get you into trouble.

  • 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.

    • 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.

      • I know gangs like ms13, crips and bloods speak in calls and other tactic ways to covertly send messages. If your the target it is good to keep a close eye out and try and have witnesses. Consider staying in areas with lots of other people to deter attacks and violations of your rights. Maintain a audio and video recorder with you and double back on them to identify the person/s if safely possible. New technology is available to place sensors as triggers to record activity.

      • That is a good suggestions, Louis. Surveillance is a good way to protect yourself and to preserve evidence for the court. I’d like to add that it’s important to first find out what type of surveillance methods are legal for your jurisdiction. Where I live in Germany, for instance, audio and video recorders to film what’s going on around one’s home are illegal without authorization, and I wouldn’t want to have anyone get into trouble. So I recommend consulting with the police first. Thanks for your suggestion.

  • Closely related to this article, I have had a few experiences lately and would like to know if anyone has heard of or experienced the same. So, I love to dumpster dive and one of my favorite spots is behind a shopping center next to my apt right behind dollar tree and bargain hunt. I usually go by myself because I don’t have a dive buddy on this side. It can be creepy sometimes but I always take lots of lights andnl park my car as close to the dumpster I can leaving myself just enough room to move a couple feet and I make sure my back is facing the safest direction so that I can keep a watch of anyone coming my direction. I’ve never had any issues with the homeless community in our area,and at this location I’ve only ever seen one homeless man and it was during the day. We both exchanged a hello and he went on his way. A few weeks ago I pulled up as always do turn off my car open the door and I heard a whistle. I thought to myself I really hope that was a bird but it sounded a lot like a person, I waited another few seconds and it happened again. It was definitely coming from the woods behind me and it was very creepy so I left immediately. Due to the trash schedule I waited a couple days and finally went back thinking things will be fine however I pull up and same thing, turn off my car open my door and there goes the whistle. Again super freaked out and took off as fast as I could. A few nights later I decided to go back to test the waters once more except for I didn’t get out of my car as I was too freaked out from the previous nights whistles. Pulled up, cracked my window just a little bit and boom there went the whistle. Finally I decided okay I’ll go during the day there’s a restaurant right next door and so there will be people close by as they park in the back and keep the restaurant door open. Middle of the day, pull up get out of my car and again I heard the whistle. I decided to stay anyways just because it was during the day and the people were there but it still did creep me out. So tonight, which inspired my Google search that led me here, my boyfriend was with me and as we were getting close I told him what had happened and that I wanted to stop to see if we could hear them. since he was with me I felt safe. I wanted to get his opinion on whether he thought it was a person or if it could be some kind of night bird. So we pull up, put the car in park, roll down the windows and we heard it. He looked at me pretty freaked out and said that it was definitely a person and then I should not go back. Obviously I’m not going back. So I was wondering if anyone else has any ideas or opinions as to what the motives could be behind this whistle whether its just to alert other people in the woods of my presence or to potentially say hey someone’s here and to do harm. My boyfriend seems to think they whistle when they hear someone pull up because it could be a drug dealer and maybe the drug dealer would whistle back letting them know they could come get their drugs but I’m not so sure about that. I don’t know that someone would just drive back there at random times hoping they could make a sale. Also, has anyone else experienced this or heard of this sort of thing happening in a situation like mine and a part from a residential community with the intent to burglarize homes?

    • I have no idea what might be causing those whistles, but they sure sound like they are related to your arriving in your car (or might it be some kind of automated whistle that goes off at regular intervals?). So, like you, I’d be too scared to dive. Has anyone else out there had a similar experience?

  • I can say with certainty that simulated bird calls are used in parts of CT in drug selling. As a past addict I learned may of the calls required to attract dealers to me.

  • I see this is an older article, but it was good to see concurrence with what we are seeing. Known drug dealers house is around the corner, they have been busted many times over the last few years but are always right back in business. We see buyers go in and out probably a dozen times a hour! (This is a quiet small VT town) But in the last couple of weeks I kept hearing all kinds of stupid barks, whistles and hoots. I’ve started watching – and it seems that buyers are making sounds before going to the house.

    I just decided I’m going to use little speakers outside and start sending random animal noises back! Just for fun, I hassle those SOBs every chance I get.

  • I heard something that sounded like a tin falling and then a whistle and not a person whistling as I opened the school. Because my boss is a way at it was 6 in the morning and dark. It was weird so I did not go to my classroom I stayed in the main school area. My classroom is upstairs and isolated from the rest of the school. I was scared but my gut was telling me something was wrong. Could this mean human trafficking?

    • It’s really hard to tell. If you work at a school, I would discuss it with the principal and if necessary, notify the authorities that it sounds like someone has been in the school. You were right to trust your instincts. Good luck.

  • Ok so I’m usually home alone and I often hear an owl hooting usually during the day I mean there nocturnal but it sounds like a human I often feel watched and we’ve been broken into before are there other meanings to this or is it just roberry

  • My car was broken into last night. Cops didn’t even come to the scene. An officer called and we did the police report over the phone, which instantly told me I was wasting my time. So I get through it all, have the car towed to the dealership, all the fun stuff. I decided to take the dog for a walk, and scout the area, and make sure nobody else was hit. Immediately started hearing the whistles. I can even pick the 4 suspects out in a lineup, no problem. I just acted like I was taking the dog for a walk. I take a bunch of weird routes. The whistles continued, and I ran into the same 4 people 2-3 times each. I couldn’t catch them in the act, but I hade enough information, or so I thought, to actually get the police to the area, to at least scare them away. Still nothing. It wasn’t a very complex system. It was just a way of saying either the area is clear, or it isn’t, and which direction. I’d never heard it before, but it instantly gave me the feeling it was team criminal activity. As said above, a very deliberate whistling, no tune involved, in multiple directions. There wasn’t much explanation, in my mind, of what else was going on. So I started whistling too. I didn’t see any other smashed windows in the area I walked through, so hopefully a little dummy whistling prevented at least a little bit. The way I saw it, if I was whistling, it telling them at the very that there was no need to scout an area someone else was already scouting. It also gave me a little confidence that they would stay far enough away from to feel at least a little bit safe. Possibly a decent defensive strategy to give a little peace of mind .

    • Sorry about your car. The whistling is an interesting observation, and you sure had a creative, proactive response. It might be worth telling the police about the whistles.

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