Animal research often does significant cruelty to the animal involved; even when it causes no permanent harm, imagine the fear and confusion of being scooped up and subjected to bizarre, incomprehensible games! It’s rare when an animal gets a chance for vengeance. Crows finally got a chance to act out their lab-rat aggressions in the name of science in a study led by James Marzluff, a researcher and overall crow enthusiast at University of Washington. Citing histories of anecdotal evidence that crows recognize particular human faces and will attack them as threats, the researchers put on bizarre masks and trapped crows in specific areas, then came back wearing the same masks to see if the birds remembered them. The birds scolded the “dangerous” masks and gathered crowds of crows who had not been trapped to join in the mob.
The pattern of attacks suggest that the crows were specifically recognizing the faces of the masks, not other features (a hat, body type.) Moreover, the use of an upside down version of the “dangerous” mask did not flummox them: “Mammals, including older humans, are less able to recognize and remember familiar faces that are inverted (Yin 1969), but an upside down variant of the dangerous mask was accurately scolded by crows in experiment 1. Facial inversion may not confuse birds because they often see people from above and are able to correct for facial orientation by turning their head; for example, we observed crows turn their head completely upside down in response to the inverted dangerous mask in experiment 1.” The spatial differences in a bird’s world (their relationship to the ground, their ability to navigate in three dimensions) therefore has a marked influence on their perception of the world around them, even in the most human arena of recognizing the human face.
Marzluff is obviously a fellow traveler with me on the journey of just, like, being, uh, really into corvids, so I believe the article’s assertion that stress to the crows was minimized as much as possible, but the whole premise is based on the idea that, if you stress a crow out, he will remember you, fight you, and tell all of his friends. Follow-up studies linked the provision of food to positive recognition as well, but the idea that crows hold grudges against the scientific annoyances interrupting their daily lives is too good. Maybe the crows are just expressing their non-consent to this experiment. It’s not dissimilar from the mistrust of science and medicine that spreads and still exists in marginalized human populations after generations of forced experimentation and permanent injury from those wearing the white masks of rationality and progress. At least the crows can fly away.