A Bird's Eye View.

When we look at a bird, we say “Oh there’s a crow,” or maybe a magpie or a mockingbird or whatever the species is. As we go out into our local environment everyday we see the same birds who, quite naturally, regard it as their environment. If we have a bird feeder, then we note the birds that come to feed. We may get a noisy crow who seems to be waiting and starts screeching as soon as it sees us coming.

We assume that it is the same crow because it happens at the same place, but could we pick him or her out of a police line up? I would wager that the answer would be a resounding “No.” All crows look the same to us, but all us don’t look the same to a crow, or a mockingbird as has been well documented in the past.

There are two reports this month in the journal Animal Cognition on birds recognizing specific humans (1, 2). The first shows that magpies can recognize people who have climbed to peer into their nest and will explain to them the error of their ways in livid magpie every time they see them (1). The other deals with pigeons in the park who quickly learn who are nice and who are nasty in terms of sharing food. Even swopping overcoats doesn’t fool them (2).

I am surprised at the surprise of the researchers who find this surprising. Birds spend a deal of their time in the air looking at the bigger scheme of things from an elevated viewpoint. They obviously have both sharp eyes and an extraordinary good pattern recognition and rapid processing ability, otherwise they would miss the lurking ground-based predator or the little snippet of food, or even worse that small entrance amongst the leaves to their nest site as the approach rapidly from a height.

The other point which I feel is almost too obvious to mention is that one crow, for example, recognizes other individual crows in spite of none of them wearing name-tags. The question that I would like answered is does that magpie recognize individual crows? Or would he say, if asked, “Oh crows, they all look alike to me.”

  1. http://www.springerlink.com/content/906q30818lv87592/
  2. http://www.springerlink.com/content/h4570207731l47h6/

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