Crow’s Don’t Forget a Human Face, But We Can’t Recognize Individual Crows

NPR’s Morning Edition had a fascinating piece on crows today. There’s a significant body of evidence that shows the birds can identify individual people. In one study, University of Washington wildlife biologist John Marzluff used masks to figure out if crows tell people apart by faces (as opposed to gait or smell, for instance); a caveman mask represented a “dangerous” person, while a Dick Cheney vizard indicated a “non-threatening” person (the costume obviously didn’t include a shotgun…). Researchers donned the caveman mask and banded seven of the corvids on campus, then walked around in the disguise for several months. Over the same period, scientists and volunteers put on the Cheney mask and walked around campus, not bothering the birds. The result? The caveman getup elicited scolding from crows even when the mask was partially covered with a hat or worn upside down (the birds actually turned their heads to see the face right-side up!). Cheney didn’t get much of a reaction at all (from the birds, that is).

NPR has a great interview with Marzluff and Cornell ornithologist Kevin McGowan, as well as a quiz that challenges you to pick out a specific crow from a lineup. It took me three tries to identify the first crow. How many guesses did it take you?