About us: We own the Wild Birds Unlimited nature shop in East Lansing, Michigan,
a store that provides a wide variety of supplies to help you enjoy the birdwatching hobby.

This blog was created to answer frequently asked questions & to share nature stories and photographs.
To contribute, email me at bloubird@gmail.com.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Birds Never Forget a Face

We had a robin nesting under our back porch. We avoided the area all spring so she wouldn’t abandon the nest. She had two babies and everything went well. Is there a way to stop her nesting there next year so we can go outside?

I’m glad everything went well for the robin family. There was actually no reason you had to change your routine. Most birds living in urban areas have adapted to the presence of humans. They may even be a better judge of character than people.

In two recent studies researchers have found that the birds can recognize individual human faces that pose a threat out of thousands of people. Dr. John Marzluff a wildlife biologist at the University of Washington did the first formal study of human face recognition in wild birds by asking the people that were banding crows to wear rubber “bad men” masks.

After the birds were banded and released back on campus, volunteers walked around with the masks on and recorded the crows’ reactions in the following months. The birds did not forget and were very vocal about the supposed “bad men”. In fact the effect not only persisted, but has multiplied over the past two years. Dr. Marzluff found the “bad men” were scolded by many more crows than had experienced the initial trapping. The researchers hypothesize that crows learned the face of the “bad men” and spread the word through the flock.

Dr. Marzluff believes that this ability gives crows and their brethren an evolutionary edge. “If you can learn who to avoid and who to seek out, that’s a lot easier than continually getting hurt,” Dr. Marzluff said. “I think it allows these animals to survive with us — and take advantage of us — in a much safer, more effective way.”

In a second controlled experiment done on Duke University in North Carolina, one student was asked to touch the nest of a Northern Mockingbird on the busy campus. After the initial contact, anytime the volunteer that touched the nest walked by, the birds would loudly protest or attack that one particular student out of thousands that would walk by the nest. These results demonstrate a remarkable ability of birds to distinguish individual human faces. And more importantly, the birds’ varying responses to humans reflect a behavioral flexibility to threats in urban environments that allow certain bird species not only survive but thrive beside humans.

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