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Paper 2: Primary and Secondary Scientific Literature

Nicole Young
DNA & Evolution
31 January 2014

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In his 2009 paper Lasting recognition of threatening people by wild American crows, Dr. John
Marzluff of the University of Washington and colleagues investigated whether wild animals learn to recognize
and remember individual people. He applied this question to wild crows in five locations throughout Seattle.
Marzluff hypothesized that crows can recognize, remember, and will respond to faces they have associated
with threats for a time after the association event. He performed three experiments to test this premise.
For Experiment 1, trappers wore a dangerous-looking caveman mask and measured the responses of
crows, mostly in the form of vocal scolding, to their presence. They then captured and released crows while
wearing the masks to associate the masks with a threatening event. Later, they walked around and re-measured
the level of response from the crows to the mask, worn in several different variations. (Figure 1) If the
hypothesis is correct, the crows should have shown increased scolding in response to the mask after capture. If
it is incorrect, the level of response should have remained about the same before and after the event.
For Experiment 2, the authors of the study again measured responses to masks before and after
capturing crows. The six masks in this experiment were based off of real human faces in neutral expressions.
(Figure 2) Four of these masks were designated dangerous and used to capture the crows, while two
remained neutral. Final responses to all six masks were recorded. According to the hypothesis, the crows
should have increased scolding after capture when exposed to the dangerous masks, but response to the neutral
masks should have stayed the same. If the response to both dangerous and neutral masks stayed about the same
from before the capturing event to after, then the hypothesis was wrong.
The third and final experiment occurred after the capturing and releasing events. Two people, one
wearing a dangerous mask and one wearing a neutral mask from Experiment 2, approached groups of crows
that had shown high levels of response after the captures. They waited until they the crows began scolding, and
then walked apart and crossed paths several times. The entire process was filmed. If the crows followed and
scolded the dangerous mask and not the neutral one, despite the crossing paths, then the hypothesis held true.
However, if the crows followed neither mask, or both masks evenly, then the hypothesis would be wrong.
Figure 3 summarizes the results of Experiment 1. The response, defined by percentage of birds
scolding, was low for all faces and masks before capture, and significantly higher for all variations of the
dangerous caveman outfit afterwards. For Experiment 2, scolding hardly ever occurred before capture. There

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was an immediate scolding response to dangerous masks, worn by people of different gender and size, after the
capturing events, which grew steadily in the following days. (Figure 4) Response to the neutral masks was
much lower than to the dangerous masks. The video footage from Experiment 3 showed that the crows at all
four sites accurately looked at, scolded, and followed the dangerous mask while largely ignoring the neutral
mask. (Figure 5).
The results from all three experiments were consistent with and provided support for the hypothesis.
Crows from all five locations recognized and remembered faces which were associated with a threatening
event. A lack of response to other markers besides faces, such as a hat or armband worn by a trapper, suggests
that the birds mark and remember people based on their physical facial characteristics, rather than accessories.
Even if this study provided evidence that wild animals can recognize and remember human faces, many
questions remain to be answered. How long will the memory of a particular face last? Do crows remember
faces in the same way humans do? Do birds only remember threatening or dangerous faces, or do they store
images of friendly faces as well? Other studies, some done by Dr. Marzluff himself, have begun to address
these questions.
A blog post by Grrlscientist in the science section of The Guardian website explained the ideas
explored in Marzluffs paper and brought them to the attention of the general public. This article did a fantastic
job of synthesizing these ideas with more from some of Marzluffs more recent work to provide a simple,
understandable narrative of the research. While few to none of the experiment details were provided, the
important conclusions drawn from the results were clearly stated and expanded upon. The author also
succeeded in identifying zones of possibility that future research in this area might take. For example, the
behavior of social crows that recognize people and form mobs could be further investigated (Grrlscientist
2011). All in all, the article served the purpose of educating the reader about the conclusions and implications
of Marzluffs work well, but if someone looking to understand more about the experiments which produced
these results, they would be better off going to the source.

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Figure 1: These faces were used in Experiment 1 to test crow responses before and after capture.
The dangerous mask is based on a cavemans face.

Figure 2: The six neutral faces here were used in Experiments 2 and 3 to test crow responses
before and after capture. The crows associated the first four with danger while the last two
remained neutral.

Figure 3: The percentage of birds that scolded trappers wearing all six variations of the faces
used in Experiment 1 before and after capture. Circles represent controls and triangles represent
dangerous faces. The scolding was much higher for dangerous caveman faces after capture.

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Figure 4: The percentage of birds that scolded (a), the dangerous masks and (b), the neutral
masks, days after capture. Gray areas indicate nonbreeding seasons and white areas represent
breeding seasons. There was an instant jump in response to (a) after zero, and a continuing
increase from there. Response to (b) was lower than to (a) and remained that way.

Figure 5: Crow response or lack of response to dangerous masks in after capture in Experiment
3 in the form of looking at person, looking at and scolding person, and scolding and following
person. D is the dangerous mask and N is the neutral mask. The neutral mask was mostly
ignored, but the dangerous mask was consistently looked at, scolded, and followed a great deal.

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Literature Cited
GrrlScientist. (2011, July 6.) American crows: the ultimate angry birds? [Blog post]. Retrieved
from http://www.theguardian.com/science/punctuated-equilibrium/2011/jul/06/2
John M. Marzluff, Jeff Walls, Heather N. Cornell, John C. Withey and David P. Craig (March
2010). Lasting recognition of threatening people by wild American crows. Animal
Behaviour. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2009.12.022