Carrion crows learn to discriminate between calls of reliable and unreliable conspecifics


Partner choice on the basis of an individual’s reliability is expected to stabilize social interactions. In this experiment, we tested whether carrion crows (Corvus corone corone) learn to differentiate between calls of reliable or unreliable individuals. Crows were kept in an aviary that comprised four visually but not acoustically isolated compartments, separated by a central room. In an association phase, a dead crow placed in the central compartment was visible only to one of the four crow groups, whilst alert calls of a conspecific were played back. Therefore, these calls were reliable for that group, but unreliable for the three other groups. The procedure was repeated, using a different reliable caller for each group. In two test sessions, 1 month apart, reliable and unreliable model individuals were played back, but no dead crow was presented. We quantified birds’ attention behaviour and the number of vocalisations emitted. In the association phase, crows were more attentive towards the reliable compared with the unreliable stimuli and called more in response to reliable compared to unreliable individuals. In the test and repeat phase, attention behaviour did not differ between reliability conditions, but the pattern of vocal behaviour reversed, with crows calling less frequent when listening to reliable compared with unreliable calls. Vocal responses of crows suggest that they can discriminate between reliable and unreliable callers.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2


  1. Akçay C, Wood WE, Searcy WA et al (2009) Good neighbour, bad neighbour: song sparrows retaliate against aggressive rivals. Anim Behav 78:97–102. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2009.03.023

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Baglione V, Marcos JM, Canestrari D, Ekman J (2002) Direct fitness benefits of group living in a complex cooperative society of carrion crows, Corvus corone corone. Anim Behav 64:887–893. doi:10.1006/anbe.2002.2007

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Baglione V, Canestrari D, Marcos JM, Ekman J (2003) Kin selection in cooperative alliances of carrion crows. Science 300:1947–1949. doi:10.1126/science.1082429

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  4. Blumstein DT, Verneyre L, Daniel JC (2004) Reliability and the adaptive utility of discrimination among alarm callers. Proc R Soc B Biol Sci 271:1851–1857. doi:10.1098/rspb.2004.2808

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Boeckle M, Bugnyar T (2012) Long-term memory for affiliates in ravens. Curr Biol 22:801–806. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.03.023

    PubMed Central  CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  6. Bolker BM, Fournier D, Skaug H et al (2012) Generalized linear mixed models using AD model builder. R package version 0.7.7

  7. Bugnyar T (2013) Social cognition in ravens. Comp Cognit Behav Rev 8:1–12. doi:10.3819/ccbr.2013.80001

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Chamberlain R, Cornwell GW (1971) Selected vocalizations of the common crow. Auk 88:613–634

    Google Scholar 

  9. Chiarati E, Canestrari D, Vera R et al (2010) Linear and stable dominance hierarchies in cooperative carrion crows. Ethology 116:346–356. doi:10.1111/j.1439-0310.2010.01741.x

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Chiarati E, Canestrari D, Vera R, Baglione V (2012) Subordinates benefit from exploratory dominants: response to novel food in cooperatively breeding carrion crows. Anim Behav 83:103–109. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2011.10.012

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Gintis H, Smith EA, Bowles S (2001) Costly signaling and cooperation. J Theor Biol 213:103–119. doi:10.1006/jtbi.2001.2406

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  12. Godard R (1993) Tit for tat among neighboring hooded warblers. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 33:45–50. doi:10.1007/BF00164345

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Hillemann F, Bugnyar T, Kotrschal K, Wascher CAF (2014) Waiting for better, not for more: corvids respond to quality in two delay maintenance tasks. Anim Behav 90:1–10. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2014.01.007

    PubMed Central  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  14. Kondo N, Watanabe S, Izawa EI (2010) A temporal rule in vocal exchange among Large-billed crows Corvus macrorhynchos in Japan. Ornithol Sci 9:83–91. doi:10.2326/osj.9.83

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Noë R, Hammerstein P (1995) Biological markets. Trends Ecol Evol 10:336–339

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  16. Olendorf R, Getty T, Scribner K (2004) Cooperative nest defence in red—winged blackbirds: reciprocal altruism, kinship or by-product mutualism? Proc R Soc Lond B 271:177–182. doi:10.1098/rspb.2003.2586

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Searcy WA, Nowicki S (2005) The Evolution of Animal Communication. Reliability and Deception in Signaling Systems. Princeton University Press, Oxfordshire

    Google Scholar 

  18. R Core Team (2013) R: a language and environment for statistical computing. Vienna, Austria: R foundation for statistical computing. Retrieved from

  19. Temeles EJ (1994) The role of neighbours in territorial systems: when are they ‘dear enemies’? Anim Behav 47:339–350. doi:10.1006/anbe.1994.1047

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Wascher CAF (2015) Individual performance in socio-cognitive tasks predicts social behaviour in carrion crows. Behaviour. doi:10.1163/1568539X-00003245

    Google Scholar 

  21. Wascher CAF, Valdez JW, Núnez Cebrian C et al (2014) Social factors modulating attention patterns in carrion crows. Behaviour 151:555–572. doi:10.1163/1568539X-00003148

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Wheeler B (2009) Monkeys crying wolf? Tufted capuchin monkeys use anti-predator calls to usurp resources from conspecifics. Proc R Soc B 276:3013–3018. doi:10.1098/rspb.2009.0544

    PubMed Central  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank Debbie Kelly and three anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on the manuscript. This work was supported by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness, project CGL2011-27260, to V. B.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethics statement

The authors declare that the study complies with the animal experimental regulations of Spain. Keeping of captive birds was authorised by the Regional Council of Castile and León (section zoology 005074), and study subjects remained housed in captivity before and after completion of the present study for further non-invasive observations and experiments.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Claudia A. F. Wascher.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary material 1 (TIFF 14823 kb)

Supplementary material 2 (DOCX 21 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Wascher, C.A.F., Hillemann, F., Canestrari, D. et al. Carrion crows learn to discriminate between calls of reliable and unreliable conspecifics. Anim Cogn 18, 1181–1185 (2015).

Download citation


  • Reliability
  • Alert calls
  • Carrion crows
  • Corvus corone corone