Crows Associate Faces With Feelings

Lee Rannals for – Your Universe Online

If crows ever freaked you out before, then you´re in for a whole new set of chill bumps. New research indicates that crows are able to recognize faces and associate them with feelings.

Scientists writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences said that crows have human-like ways of attaching negative and positive emotions to particular faces.

“The regions of the crow brain that work together are not unlike those that work together in mammals, including humans,” John Marzluff, University of Washington professor of environmental and forest sciences, said in a recent statement. “These regions were suspected to work in birds but not documented until now.

He said it appears the birds have a region of their brain that is similar to the amygdala of mammals, which is the region of the vertebrate brain where negative associations are stored as memories.

“Previous work primarily concerned its function in mammals while our work shows that a similar system is at work in birds,” he said. “Our approach could be used in other animals — such as lizards and frogs — to see if the process is similar in those vertebrates as well.”

During the study, crows were captured by investigators while they were wearing masks that were considered to be threatening.

The crows were not mistreated, but the fact that they were captured was enough to set off an alarm inside their head of a threatening association.

For four weeks they were placed in captivity, and fed by people wearing a mask different than the first, which they called “the caring face.”

The masks were based on actual people’s faces and both had neutral expressions so the associations made by the crows was based on their treatment.

During most previous neurological studies of animals, the work starts by sedating the animals, according to Marzluff.  However, during the recent study, they injected a glucose fluid commonly used in brain imaging into the bodies of fully alert crows that went back to moving freely about their cages.

The fluid flooded the parts of the crow brains that were most active as they were exposed for about 15 minutes to someone wearing either the threatening or caring mask.

The birds were then sedated, and the team made scans of their brains. Afterwards, all the birds were returned to the wild.

“Our approach has wide applicability and potential to improve our understanding of the neural basis for animal behavior,” the researchers wrote in the journal.

Marzluff said that this new approach enables the team to study the visual system of birds and how the brain integrates the visual sensation to behavior action.

He said among other things, the findings have implications for lowering the stress of captive animals.

“By feeding and caring for birds in captivity their brain activity suggests that the birds view their keepers as valued social partners, rather than animals that must be feared,” he said. “So, to keep captive animals happy we need to treat them well and do so consistently.”

Marzluff said the findings might offer a way to reduce conflict between birds and endangered species on which they might be feeding.

“Our studies suggest that we can train these birds to do the right thing,” Marzluff said. “By paring a negative experience with eating a tortoise or a plover, the brain of the birds quickly learns the association. To reduce predation in a specific area we could train birds to avoid that area or that particular prey by catching them as they attempt to prey on the rare species.”