A Crow Never Forgets

Photograph by Joel Sartore

A Crow Never Forgets

The remarkable birds, like us, can remember people's faces. 

By Jhaneel Lockhart
Published: January-February 2013

Scientists know that crows, like people, can recognize specific human faces--even years after a single encounter--and that they can associate them with negative or positive feelings. Wildlife scientist John Marzluff and colleagues at the University of Washington wondered if birds therefore process faces similarly to humans.

To find out, they wore masks and captured crows, creating a negative association in the birds. Then they switched to different masks while feeding and caring for their short-term captives. PET scans of the birds' brains showed that the threatening masks activated regions that regulate responses like attention and memory of fear. Caring masks, in contrast, activated memory and motivation, hunger, and reward regions.

"Their brains are small in comparison to ours, but they're using them in pretty much the same way to make all these complex decisions," says Marzluff, "and they're apparently doing it in ways that are as complicated as our own." The findings have several possible applications, he adds. Bird owners, for instance, might consider wearing a mask when administering a shot or other traumatic care. And where wild crow populations feed on threatened species, like snowy plovers, biologists might reduce predation by catching the predators as they swoop in, making it a negative experience that the birds quickly learn to avoid.

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