Remember me? Crows do

August 27, 2008

Get to Know the Crow

Crows fascinate us with their complex social lives and their ingenious problem-solving skills. This self-paced course is led by world-renowned crow biologist Dr. Kevin McGowan, who has been studying crow families for decades. Learn more.

Here at Round Robin we’re gradually recovering from the scientific meeting overload that was mid-August – and we hope everyone else is too.

So what are we up to now? Working on creating a Flickr group that anyone can join to share bird photos. These can be photos you’re proud of, mystery photos, artsy photos, digiscoped photos, or just photos to document all the different plumages and poses birds can take. Look for a full post about the group later this week!

While we work on that, here’s a tidbit from Tuesday’s New York Times science section: crows recognize human faces and remember how individual people have treated them.

The University of Washington’s John Marzluff initiated the study with his graduate students. After decades of crow research, Marzluff began to suspect that older crows knew what was afoot when they saw him coming. So during a recent field season, he assigned students to wear masks (“ogre” vs. “Dick Cheney”) while they visited birds.

Students handled birds normally while they wore the ogre mask, including picking up nestlings and placing standard ID bands on their legs. But while dressed as Cheney (in what the NYT described as “a deliberate gesture of civic generosity”) they were downright friendly, even offering the birds food.

Kevin McGowan visits a crow nest.Kevin McGowan visits a crow nest, sans mask.

The test came months later, as the researchers put the masks back on and revisited the neighborhood. Even though researchers didn’t approach nests, the crows remembered the ogre face, mobbing and cawing at it while paying much less attention to Cheney. Even now, two years later, Marzluff is still hounded by crows if he wears the ogre mask.

The team has since repeated the experiments with more realistic (presumably more subtly different) masks – go read the story to find out what happened. (Read all the way to the end for the perspective of the Lab’s Kevin McGowan, who has noticed similar abilities with the crows of central New York.)

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