The crow knows your nose

 

Cross-posted from The Last Word on Nothing.

Crow diving at a masked researcher in Seattle. Photo by Keith Brust

I have a running joke with my husband’s cousin, Roger. At family reunions, I tell him how much I like crows. He tells me how much he likes to shoot them.

Hilarious, right? Here’s the satisfying part: Crows remember Roger. They don’t just remember Roger’s suburban Seattle home and his BB gun. They also seem to remember his face. When he leaves his house, the crows mob him, diving and screeching around his head. (They leave other family members alone.) When this harassment — or retaliation — began, Roger took his campaign into a second-floor bedroom, where he crouched below a windowsill and poked his BB gun through a slit in the screen. But the crows have never forgotten his mug. Years after his last open attack on the noisy neighborhood flocks, he’s still Corvid Enemy Number One.

Now, I have some actual science to bring to our argument. In a paper released yesterday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, ecologist John Marzluff and two of his students report that crows are past masters at holding a grudge.

Over the years, I’ve had several chances to write about Marzluff, a corvid researcher who works at the University of Washington — coincidentally or not, quite close to Roger’s neighborhood. I’ve followed Marzluff as he’s tried — with mixed success — to trap crafty crows in the suburbs, and I’ve reported on his and his colleagues’ efforts to turn urban Seattle into an ecological laboratory. Most recently, I wrote about his study of crows’ ability to recognize individual human faces:

 

To test the birds’ recognition of faces separately from that of clothing, gait and other individual human characteristics, Dr. Marzluff and two students wore rubber masks. He designated a caveman mask as “dangerous” and, in a deliberate gesture of civic generosity, a Dick Cheney mask as “neutral.” Researchers in the dangerous mask then trapped and banded seven crows on the university’s campus in Seattle. In the months that followed, the researchers and volunteers donned the masks on campus, this time walking prescribed routes and not bothering crows.
The crows had not forgotten. They scolded people in the dangerous mask significantly more than they did before they were trapped, even when the mask was disguised with a hat or worn upside down. The neutral mask provoked little reaction. The effect has not only persisted, but also multiplied over the past two years.

In today’s paper, Marzluff and his coauthors report that crows have an even longer memory for human faces than first thought: Crows have now mobbed the dangerous mask for a full five years, and scientists have observed the effect as far as 1.2 kilometers from the original campus study site. Apparently, the original seven crows have taught both their peers and their offspring to carry on their vendetta.

So crows can differentiate between Cheney and a caveman. So what? The researchers speculate that the ability to recognize and remember individual human faces may help crows survive in an increasingly human-dominated world.

The behavior of individual people towards animals is often changing, and recent studies have demonstrated that an ability to discern differences between humans may enable successful species to adapt to, and even coevolve with, human behavior.

Want to survive in the city? Know your enemies.

Researchers making a mask, with the help of a generous volunteer. Photo courtesy John Marzluff.

Whether or not a capacity for personal grudges has contributed to their survival, crows are thriving in Seattle. Thanks in part to expanding suburbs — and their delectable garbage — the local crow population has grown exponentially in recent decades, and suburbanites have become all too familiar with the birds’ raucous chorus.

Sorry, Roger. There goes the neighborhood. But take heart: Cheney masks are still in stock.

Michelle Nijhuis is a contributing editor at High Country News.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEAN, W. A. FRANKE COLLEGE OF FORESTRY AND CONSERVATION, UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA
    Dean, W. A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, apply http://bit.ly/2548umjobs. AA/EEO/ADA/Veterans Preference Employer
  • GRAPHIC DESIGNER
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a creative and driven graphic design professional to design high quality print and digital collateral. The Graphic Designer will bring...
  • STEWARDSHIP SPECIALIST
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks experienced person to manage its 133 conservation easements in south-central Colorado.
  • CAMPAIGN REPRESENTATIV
    Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign is hiring an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry on the Gulf...
  • AG LANDS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Oregon Agricultural Trust (OAT) seeks passionate relationship builder experienced in coordinating agricultural conservation easement transactions.
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • FINANCE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Coms/Engagmnt Mngr; Dev/Engagmnt Dir; Americorps vol
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND ENGAGEMENT MANAGER
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Dev/Engagement Dir; Coms/Engagement Mngr; & Americorps volunteer
  • SEASONAL TRAIL CREW LEADERS
    Lead the nation's premier volunteer-based trail crew programs on the spectacular Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. This is a great career-building opportunity for rising professionals....
  • ORGANIZING AND TRAINING COORDINATOR
    Is this your dream job? Are you looking to join a nationally recognized organizing network, live in a spectacular part of the West, and work...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND ADVOCACY DIRECTOR
    Provide stewardship and protection for the Great Burn wildlands along the Montana-Idaho stateline. This position is based in Missoula, MT, where a river runs through...
  • DEVELOMENT DIRECTOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness is seeking a qualified Development Director to manage the fundraising success of our growing organization, including the team-driven implementation of...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • SAN JUAN BASIN ENERGY CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance is seeking a full-time San Juan Energy Campaign Organizer located in Farmington, New Mexico. The San Juan Energy Campaign Organizer focuses...
  • WILDLIFE PROGRAM MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance (SJCA) is looking for a passionate, experienced, and motivated Wildlife Program Manager to lead campaigns to protect and enhance wildlife and...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "This thriving citizens organization exemplifies the ideal of public involvement in public processes."- Billings Gazette Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, &...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER AND MEMBERSHIP COORDINATOR
    Western Colorado Alliance is hiring for 4 positions, 2 Full Time Community Organizers, 1 Part Time Community Organizer and a Part Time Membership Coordinator. For...
  • BUSINESS OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    Thorne Nature Experience is looking for a Business Operations Director who will work in partnership with the Executive Director and Thorne's Directors and Managers to...
  • WILDERNESS CONSERVATION CORPS - OREGON
    The Siskiyou Mountain Club is hiring interns for the 2020 Field Season. Interns utilize non-mechanized tools to complete trail restoration and maintenance while gaining job...