Friday, April 3, 2009

Here's Looking at You

Anyone who has trained their binoculars or a camera on a bird knows this scenario: you work your way into a position to view the bird, you raise your optics, as soon as the bird is in your field of view it takes off - like it knows you're looking at it.

Well, that's because it does, according to new research published this week in Current Biology. Auguste M.P. von Bayern and Nathan J. Emery found that hand-reared Jackdaws, a crow found in Europe and western Asia, were highly sensitive to the focus of human eyes and their communicatory function.

Jackdaw, courtesy of WikipediaThe Jackdaw, Corvus monedula, knows
when it's the center of attention.

From the paper:

Article summary
Humans communicate their intentions and disposition using their eyes, whereas the communicative function of eyes in animals is less clear. Many species show aversive reactions to eyes, and several species gain information from conspecifics' gaze direction by automatically co-orienting with them. However, most species show little sensitivity to more subtle indicators of attention than head orientation and have difficulties using such cues in a cooperative context. Recently, some species have been found responsive to gaze direction in competitive situations. We investigated the sensitivity of jackdaws, pair-bonded social corvids that exhibit an analogous eye morphology to humans, to subtle attentional and communicative cues in two contexts and paradigms. In a conflict paradigm, we measured the birds' latency to retrieve food in front of an unfamiliar or familiar human, depending on the state and orientation of their eyes toward food. In a cooperative paradigm, we tested whether the jackdaws used familiar human's attentional or communicative cues to locate hidden food. Jackdaws were sensitive to human attentional states in the conflict situation but only responded to communicative cues in the cooperative situation. These findings may be the result of a natural tendency to attend to conspecifics' eyes or the effect of intense human contact during socialization.

Click here for full article (PDF).

von Bayern and Emery, Jackdaws Respond to Human Attentional States and Communicative Cues in Different Contexts, Current Biology (2009), doi:10.1016/j.cub.2009.02.062

Jackdaw image from Wikipedia.



Jochen said...

Jackdaws kick butt.
I am sure they can not only sense your stare, they can read your thoughts just by looking at you with those pale blue eyes.

noflickster said...

@Jochen - I've often wondered about ESP, or a similar talent, in birds in general. Especially raptors: they really stare you down, while the songbirds make eye contact then scamper away. Jackdaws, though, they definitely have that otherworldly gaze . . . .

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