The most familiar American crow call is the harsh “caw-caw.” This vocalization can have several qualities and lengths that may serve different purposes.

Ever since I read Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven” in junior high school, the bird has fascinated me. Corvids, such as ravens and crows, are among the smartest of all birds and have a reputation for solving more and more complicated problems invented by increasingly creative scientists.

It’s tricky to tell crows and ravens apart by sight, but their voices are much more distinctive.

The signature, high-pitched “caw-caw” of an American crow has essentially the same function as a bird’s song. It says, according to Kevin J. McGowan, an ornithologist at Cornell University, “I’m here, and this territory is taken.” But crows also have more than 20 other calls, such as a rattle, a click and other bell-like sounds. Sometimes, a crow will clack its bill to make a single, sharp note.

Common ravens broadcast their presence through their classic gurgling croak—a throaty and hoarse “kraa-kraa” that is deeper than that of a crow’s. Audible for more than a mile, the raven’s croak is often given in response to hearing other ravens in the distance.

A raven often makes a low, resonant “kraa-kraa” sound, but it can also scream, whistle and communicate with a melodious knocking noise. ©john_k, flickr

Ravens also make short, repeated, shrill cries when chasing predators or trespassers; and bass, rasping calls when their nests are disturbed. Dominant females will sometimes make a rapid series of 12 or so knocking sounds that last about a second. Displaying males and females will loudly snap their beaks.

Scientists have placed raven vocalizations into as many as 33 different categories based on sound and context. Ravens can mimic other birds, and when raised in captivity can even be taught words.

Watch the video below from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. In it, the calls of American crows are compared with those made by common ravens. To download a crow identification packet with sound files, click here.

Contrary to what Poe writes, I have never heard a raven in the wild actually say “nevermore.” But I’m pretty sure the only reason is that the ones I’ve run into haven’t wanted to—yet.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,