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Smart Bird and Face ID: Jackdaws Can Recognize Faces

Aug 13, 2015 10:26 PM EDT
"Show me your face, buddy," might be a thought of the jackdaw, one of several birds that recognize faces.
Jackdaws, a small type of crow found in Europe, northern Africa and western Asia, recognize human faces and can likely tell whether you're looking directly at them or not. They store this information away for later chats with police detectives, or maybe not.
(Photo : Flickr: Susanne Nilsson)

Jackdaws, which are small black crows with a silvery sheen at the backs of their heads, have been added to the short list of birds not to mug in a back alley. That's because these corvids will recognize your face and report you to the police. Or, at the very least, they might respond defensively. 

That is, jackdaws have the ability to assess a potential threat by seeing the faces of those predators, and may be able to tell whether predators are looking directly at them. Researchers from the universities of Exeter and Cambridge recently published their research about the birds in the journal Animal Behavior.

In the past, studies have shown that crows, magpies and mockingbirds are also able to recognize individual humans. But that research took place in urban areas where the birds were likely to frequently encounter humans. Jackdaws, though, live in nest boxes and can be observed in the wild, as a statement observed.

The Exeter and Cambridge scientists learned that jackdaws could distinguish between two masks worn by researcher Dr. Gabrielle Davidson. The birds responded defensively to the mask in which the researcher had accessed their nest box (to weigh chicks), but not to a mask in which she had simply walked past the box, said the release.

Likewise, if Dr. Davidson looked directly at the jackdaws rather than looking at the ground, the birds quickly went inside the nest box, the release noted.

"The fact that they learn to recognize individual facial features or hair patterns so quickly, and to a lesser extent which direction people are looking in, provides great evidence of the flexible cognitive abilities of these birds," said Dr. Davidson in the release. "It also suggests that being able to recognize individual predators and the levels of threat they pose may be more important for guarding chicks than responding to the direction of the predator's gaze."

The research used masks to remove the possibility that the birds would recall researchers' faces from previous encounters, said the release.

Follow Catherine on Twitter at @TreesWhales

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