Bird Science: Here’s Looking At You

Northwestern Crow. Memorizing your credit card number.
Northwestern Crow. Memorizing your credit card number.

As a bird photographer, I’m learning to judge just how closely I can approach a bird before it starts to show signs of alarm. Of course there are two good reasons for this: I don’t want to stress my subjects, but I do want to get a decent shot before they flee. One of the things I’ve noticed consistently is that some birds will allow you to approach quite closely, as long as you’re not looking at them, nor pointing a lens at them. As soon as you do, they take off. Drives me crazy.

Researchers are beginning to document this phenomenon. Though chimps and dogs, it seems, are not too sensitive to the human gaze (attending more to overall body language), birds definitely are. In one set of experiments, starlings tracked whether or not a human was looking at their food dish, and approach the dish as soon as the human looked away.

Stop LOOKING at me. (Eurasian starling)
Stop LOOKING at me. (Eurasian starling)

similar experiment found the same thing with jackdaws, a European member of the crow family.

The theory is that birds naturally benefit by keeping tabs on predators’ behaviour. If they can judge accurately whether or not a predator is interested in them, they clearly have a lot to gain. In this case, watching predators’ eyes allows them to judge when it is safe to return to their food source. Clever.

The name's Daw. Jackdaw.
The name’s Daw. Jackdaw.

I’m pretty sure you’d find a very high level of gaze awareness with northwestern crows. Not long ago, we were watching a barred owl as it quietly hid high up in one of the cedars of Stanley Park. He was quite sheltered there; during daylight hours, they try to stay hidden from the crows, who harass them mercilessly. Lo and behold, a pair of crows happened by. I watched them look down at us, then follow our gaze back up to the owl, whom they immediately started mobbing. I felt awful at having given him away.

Sorry, bro.

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