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Field Notes: a Northwest nature blog

One of the reasons many of us live in the Pacific Northwest is the natural wonders that amaze us all. On this blog Seattle Times writers and photographers will share their explorations of the natural world from snowcaps to whitecaps. Write us at fieldnotes@seattletimes.com with your own sightings, questions and wonders to share.

July 1, 2011 at 7:00 AM

Crows don't get mad, they get even -- and bring friends, and never forget

Posted by Craig Welch

It had been almost half a decade since they first donned the scary caveman mask and went about trying to capture and place monitoring bands on crows in a corner of the city.

John Marzluff, the professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington most famous for his work with the intelligent urban birds, wanted to know if crows would actually recognize and remember the face of the human that had caused such a ruckus. So he and some students came back time and again wearing the same caveman mask. Each time, they were harassed, the birds sometimes even swooping down and nearly touching them.

Marzluff and his students repeated their quiet journey several times over the years, and wrote scientific papers that got attention around the world. Crows, it seemed, could remember a face. Marzluff's crew took a breather for awhile and then went back and paid the neighborhood another visit wearing their special caveman mask. The results were published Wednesday in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. See it here.

The results show that angry crows don't just recognize individual tormentors, but they share that information with friends and family. Most notably: They remember it for years and years and years -- even when the person in the caveman mask appears far away from the scene of the original crime.

"They have remembered this dangerous caveman guy for five years," Marzluff said. "And they hadn't even seen him for a year."


Marzluff.jpg UW researcher John Marzluff prepares to give a crow a brain scan.
Photo courtesy of by Donna J. Cross


Marzluff's research showed that these birds passed their grudges down to their young, and shared it with other crows nearby. The birds learned by being caught, by watching another bird get caught, or by communicating with parents or peers. And the number of birds involved in the scolding has increased year after year.

Two other takes on the latest crow news can be found here and here.

Next up for Marzluff and crew: They are studying the brains of crows to better understand just how it is that the birds recognize faces.

"We are scanning their brains, looking at what part is being activated when they see a dangerous or non-dangerous person," Marzluff said.

Stay tuned.

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