Remember me? Crows do

August 27, 2008
Kevin McGowan visits a crow nest.Kevin McGowan visits a crow nest, sans mask.
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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.

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.)

Comments

  • Awesome! Crows have always been one of my favorites and this just solidifies it more.

    Cool about the Flickr group too. If you have any questions feel free to contact me. I started a group Sept 1 of last year and it has been very successful.

    One more (unrelated) note: It would be great if Cornell could get photos of bird specimens to add to the All About Birds section of the website. A photo-collection of these “museum” birds would help with identification questions, such as when new birds show up (i.e. Sinaloa Wren in Arizona)

    ~Birdfreak

  • Hugh

    @ Birdfreak: thanks for the comment, and let us know more about your Flickr group (is it Secret Life of Birds??)

    The “virtual museum” idea is a great one, though with 50,000 bird specimens here, I’m thinking we’d need a dedicated staff member to make a dent in it. Maybe it’s grant-writing time. -H

  • Yes it is the Secret Life of Birds. I can explain more about it if you wanna email me.

    That’s a lot of bird specimens!! I’d be up for the job :)

    ~Birdfreak