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