Sunday, November 17, 2013

Avian Einsteins

You may already know of my interest in crows, jays, and other intelligent bird species. (If not, you can catch up by reading previous blog posts here and here.) Today I want to share with you another interesting study that suggests that crows have the ability to teach other crows to avoid dangerous human individuals. Researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle have performed a fascinating field study in urban Seattle. The "dangerous person" researchers put on "cave man" masks and then engaged in threatening behaviours with the crows of a certain area of the campus: they trapped, banded, and released the crows while wearing the "dangerous person" mask. Later when researchers walked about in the same area of the campus, wearing the "dangerous person" mask, crows scolded them from tree-tops and other safe distances. The crows did not react to other persons wearing different but similar masks. Their eye for detail made the scolding very specific. Both crows that had been "threatened" (trapped, banded, and released) and those that had not been threatened engaged in the scolding. This indicates that the crows are capable of communicating the danger of certain individuals to companion crows and family members. The researchers showed that it was not simply one type of mask that got a response from the crows by repeating the experiment in different regions using different masks for the "dangerous persons" and "safe persons."

This research suggests a couple of things. First, crows are intelligent enough to know a person who has done something scary to them. They recognize individual people and can tell us apart by facial recognition. Second, they can communicate information about individual people to each other. Even crows that had not been scared by certain individuals knew the particular face that belonged to a person who was a potential threat. This suggests that their communicative powers are better than we might have expected. Whatever the mechanisms, the communication methods are sufficient to communicate complex information about facial characteristics.

I am inspired by the intelligence of both the birds and the researchers. The researchers carefully designed their field research and were alert to test alternate theories. As the researchers readily admit, it is field research, as opposed to the controlled setting of a laboratory, and is therefore messy; but by not over-interpreting the results these investigators have contributed to the scientific knowledge base. The crows have once again shown themselves to be intelligent, protective, and communicative. This is another testimony to the glory of our God who created birds with intelligence. This inspires me to praise men, crows, and God.

"Crows Share Intelligence About Enemies;" CBC.ca/Technology and Science; June 30, 2011 (accessed 2013-11-17) http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/crows-share-intelligence-about-enemies-1.1014915.

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