"It was very unusual thing," says Dr. Sang-im Lee, the leader of the magpie survey team at Seoul National University. "We've been doing exactly the same survey every year for more than 15 years but nobody was followed by birds." Then, what was so special about this one, unfortunate, crew member? "Usually we take turns when we climb up the nests. But in 2009, Mr. Lee always climbed to the nests because he was putting cameras into the nests." So, repeated presentation of the same human as a threat to the nests could have facilitated the learning process of magpies, and could have led to the recognition of this crew member.
Since birds, such like magpies, are not that much sensitive to smell, and the distance between the experimenters and the magpies were more than 10 meters, it is not likely that the birds recognize smell of a person. It is more likely that they use vision. And because the climber and the non-climber wore the same clothing and walked similarly in the experiment, what remains the most different between the two humans is the face. Dr. Piotr Jablonski, who designed the experiment in this study, says "it is amazing that magpies can recognize one individual human out of twenty thousand people present in the campus." As a foreigner living in Korea, he confessed that he has had difficulties discriminating people, especially during the first year or two. "All Asian looked similar to me but probably not to the magpies."
Just as Dr. Jablonski's discriminatory skills get better with time and being exposed to more Korean people, the magpies in university campus could have been able to recognize humans who pose threat to their nests
|Contact: SangJin Lee|
Laboratory of Behavioral Ecology and Evolution at Seoul National University