Mockingbird to Annoying Human: "Hey, I Know You"

By Eliza Strickland | May 19, 2009 8:40 am

mockingbirdIf you get on a mockingbird’s enemy list, expect to be dive-bombed every time you come within the bird‘s sight. That’s one lesson that can be taken from a new study which proved that mockingbirds can recognize individual people, and attack those who have bothered their nests in the past. While ornithologists knew that certain highly intelligent birds like parrots and crows can recognize humans in a lab setting, they were surprised to find similar behavior in a songbird living in the wild. This paper is “a beauty,” says John Fitzpatrick, an ornithologist at Cornell University. “It’s amazing what a bird brain can do” [ScienceNOW Daily News].

The study was prompted by a series of bird attacks. A graduate student involved in research on bird nesting noticed that when she would make repeat visits to peoples’ yards the birds would alarm and attack her, while they would ignore people gardening or doing other things nearby…. Indeed, it seemed they could even recognize her car, and she had to start parking around the corner [AP]. So the researchers designed an experiment to investigate whether the birds really could identify an individual person.

For the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers identified 24 mockingbirds watching over egg-filled nests on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville. For each nest, they had one volunteer approach and touch the eggs over the course of four days, but on each day the volunteer approached at a different time, came from a different direction, and wore different clothes. Still, with every visit, the bird grew more agitated. At first, the mother bird waited until the person came close and then flew to a nearby bush to shout out alarms calls, a behavior called flushing that birds do to distract predators in the wild. But by day four, mom was up and out of her nest when the volunteer was almost 14 meters away–and she or her mate dive-bombed the volunteer’s head [ScienceNOW Daily News]. When a new volunteer approached the nest on the fifth day and touched the eggs, the mother bird started the get-to-know-you process from scratch, and merely called alarms from a nearby bush.

Researchers say it’s remarkable that the birds can pick out one human from the hundreds who pass near their nests each day on the busy campus, but suggest that they’re building on a preexisting ability to monitor potential threats. Says lead researcher Doug Levey: “We don’t believe mockingbirds evolved an ability to distinguish between humans. Mockingbirds and humans haven’t been living in close association long enough for that to occur. We think instead that our experiments reveal an underlying ability to be incredibly perceptive of everything around them, and to respond appropriately when the stakes are high” [The Guardian].

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Image: Lou Guilette/PNAS. A mockingbird dive-bombs one of the volunteers.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World
  • Phil

    How much time and money was spent, wasted on this study?

    Everyone knows Blue Jays and other birds do the same thing in the spring and early summer to protect their eggs and young.

  • bigjohn756

    How does ‘everyone’ know this? Because of studies like this.

    But, you are right, Phil, we should have sent the money squandered on this very expensive test to Africa to feed the starving birds there.

  • Erasmussimo

    “Everyone knows Blue Jays and other birds do the same thing in the spring and early summer to protect their eggs and young.”

    Does everyone know that mockingbirds can recognize individual humans? Can you recognize individual mockingbirds?

  • Jo

    @Phil: as far as studies go, this looks pretty simple, short and cheap. And it was NOT testing whether the birds would attack people — it was testing their ability to recognize individuals. (You read the article, right?)

    This is cool. It tells us that mockingbirds don’t generalize the people that they meet — they can recognize individual humans and treat them differently based on past experience. One would expect them to be able to recognize other individual mockingbirds, but to transfer this ability over to people tells us something about how their minds work and how they view the world. And knowing that other species have this ability can tell us something about how our own minds became what they are.

  • Anne

    Hmmm… the researchers conducted this study on a University campus. Quite possibly the researchers were the students themselves, and this was part of a project they came up with. Quite possibly for a thesis. That means that it was their time spent, them learning how to be researchers when they graduate, and them completing a process that will enable them to graduate with an advanced degree. Someday they may come up with a very important discovery.
    Money well spent.

  • http://clubneko.net Nick

    Birds have direct lineage back to the dinosaurs, which ruled the earth for millions of years.

    Discount the abilities of birds at your own peril.

    And, honestly, with the cacophony of bird song out there, how can you not think these critters are intelligent and communicating? Just because we can’t understand them doesn’t mean they’re stupid – we found that out with colonialism and the slave trade of ‘savages.’

  • http://clubneko.net Nick

    “We don’t believe mockingbirds evolved an ability to distinguish between humans. Mockingbirds and humans haven’t been living in close association long enough for that to occur. We think instead that our experiments reveal an underlying ability to be incredibly perceptive of everything around them, and to respond appropriately when the stakes are high”

    Their genetics have last hundreds of millions of years now. They have a survival skill or two. I’ll say it again, we underestimate nature at our own peril – we can’t be above it because we are of it.

  • torres

    I live in south florida and I see these mockingbirds everyday. They are, of all the many animals great and small that I have observed, truly one of the cleverest and lively critters. They are very entertaining birds, with innumerable songs and aero-acrobatics that boggle the mind. They have even rivaled my jack russell terrier and Cuban girlfriend in sheer attitude packed into something so small. haha I love this little bird.

  • Troy

    I love studies like this. It enforces the perspective that we are simply sharing this world with a multitude of other living beings. I read of a study on dolphins (I believe), that they actually have a vocalization that means “human”. Anyone else recall this?

  • Rarbit

    I once raised a pair (male and female) of mallard ducks. After they were grown, I released them to a pond that had other mallards, which was about 30 miles from where I live. I came back the following spring and the two ducks (Donald and Daisy), with several ducklings in tow, separated from the other birds, and came running up to me and my wife. They were obviously very excited to see us. So, I can vouch that at least mallards are able to recognize individual people.

  • http://drivethruscience.com Drivethruscientist

    I’ve always wondered if imprinting behavior in ducks could lead to an easily domesticated fowl … Not much for cuddling though i hear :D

  • Barger

    We have a mockingbird’s nest in a potted plant on our front porch. My twin sister thought it would be neat to take a picture of the nest, and the mama bird swooned in on her. Now whenever I walk out the front door to take my dog out, the bird swoons in on me too!

    Mockingbird’s aren’t that smart. We’re fraternal.

  • p

    I had a bird give me an expired coupon one time, man, was that a fiasco!

  • wayne

    I agree with Erasmussimo, Jo, Troy, Rarbit, and Nick..

    ‘Song-birds’ have been found to have highly developed avian equivalents of sophisticated hippocampal temporal lobes in the brain [centres for memory (all forms: auditory, visual, spatial, etc) . [ This could account for some of the fine discriminatory and memory findings of the experirment.] Although the spectrum of audio frequencies (frequency range) that birds can hear is reduced compared with humans, the *acuity* (acoustic discrimination) of birds’ hearing range is far greater (higher-res) than for humans. In addition, birds are able to process ‘audio-syllables’ far faster (up to 10 times faster) than can humans. Birds also have sensory cells that can pick up low-frequency vibrations. Perhaps a combination of these: visual memory plus acoustic and vibrational memory, might help the birds create a ‘memory network-grid’ for an individual based on things like ‘gait pattern’, etc.

    Troy, you asked about dolphins .. i haven’t heard whether they have a vocalization that means “human”(!) but if they did (or something like it) it wouldn’t surprise me: Of all the mammals, the dolphin is one of those that’s closest to humans in terms of comparative genomics (genetics).

  • Jen Hawse

    Quick theory: A 100 years back or so we would have perhaps been better at recognizing individual mockingbirds ourselves. Even if they have similar markings the location and behavior of each bird would stand out. Not to apply this universally, but more so than now.

    Loosing the intimate relationship we once had with nature lead to us adapting a “we’re the smartest of them all!” attitude that doesn’t serve us well. Studies like these work to reverse that attitude and change our own conception of the natural world to a more holistic one.

  • p

    I’ve met some pretty smart birds, but they all suck at poker.

  • Elegiac View

    I certainly disagree with the idea that mockingbirds may not be able to recognize individual humans. That is a preposterous statement. Why, may I ask, would someone actually think that? If humans and animals are able to distinguish between other humans, animals, etc, why would it be supposed that a bird could not do the same? It is obvious that the birds in this story were capable of doing so. Now, their very act of discerning between individual persons may be different than how human beings perceive other humans, but yet, researchers should not make such absurd proposals as the one stated in this article. I have always known that animals are more intelligent than we give them credit for, and a story such as this only enhances that thought.

  • p

    I once taught a three-toed sloth to write calligraphy. So, please, don’t sell the animals short. They are quite capable of exhibiting human behavioral traits, and are wonderful cooks.

  • Doug Levey

    Hi All:
    I’m the author of the study. Thanks for the lively discussion. I’d like to respond to Phil’s initial comment — as suspected by many of you, the study was designed by students, done by students, and cost literally nothing except for time. If anything, I think it’ s a good example of how good science can be done without fancy equipment or complex experiments.

    For a video of our birds in action, please check out:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BtoM-jiXT-Y
    I promise it’ll make you smile and shake your head. Please let others know about it, as I think it’s a good way to open eyes about nature and about the nature of science. Thanks.

  • Jeff

    I am currently experiencing this problem in my yard with a Mockingbird. It does know me and will not bother other people passing my house, but the moment I exit the front door the “alarm” goes off and the bird goes for me! I was trying to water plants in the front and noticed the Mocking bird getting closer each day until one day it had enough and starting dive bombing! I squirted a jet stream of water at it and it backed off and went for another angle of attack. I do not want to harm the bird as it probably has young depending upon it, but enough is enough already! How long will this thing stay in attack mode and when will it be safe to enter the front yard again? I went for a walk a few days ago and it tried attacking me all the way down to the corner of the street. I had a walking stick that I carried with me just in case and ended-up swinging at it until I got to the corner…had to have a friend come out and “cover” me when I came back from geting the mail!!!

  • Sandra

    People who live close to the nature – which our ancestors definitely did – knew this before. It is another well forgotten human knowledge: yes, birds do recognise humans as do animals and, maybe, even plants do.

  • http://planettom.livejournal.com planettom

    “Now Scout, it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” said Atticus.
    Suddenly, there was a flash of gray and something struck the back of Atticus’s head, causing his hat to fly off.
    “Son of a – !”
    “Jim, get my gun.” Atticus said grimly, retrieving his hat from the ground and dusting it off before placing it back on his head. “It’s time to start sinning!”

  • LI_Mom

    A few years ago, my cat used to sit (stalk? lol) under a Mockingbird’s nest & obviously this bird had it out for the cat.

    The poor kitty couldn’t go outside without being attacked & finally I went out to try to stand guard for him. The next thing I knew…. I was the new target. If I went out the front door, the bird was swooping after me. If I went out the back door, the bird was waiting to get me. I finally had to use a broom to fend off the dive bombs & after a few weeks the bird became less aggressive. Why not? She/he sure taught us who was boss. lol

  • MRL

    @Jen Hawse

    I disagree Jen, it wasn’t a separation from nature that built up this idea in the minds of people, it was the religious zealots who were specifically spreading the message (reference the Bible) that Man by right had dominion over the “lesser animals.” I do agree that studies like this promote a more holistic, saner viewpoint.

  • Lindsay

    We have a mocking bird and it’s nest in our front yard and noneof us have even approached the nest but as soon as we step outside or get out of our car she’s diving at us it’s very onnoying!!

  • http://Discover Terry

    Yep, It’s true about these Mocking Birds, we have a nest down low in a tree, and my son goes out all the time to see them, (he’s grown) and the birds see him coming and dive bomb him in the head, it’s sooooo funny, there are 5 little baby birds in the nest. My husky was within 10 feet today and it got him in the back, he jumped, turned around, and almost had the bird in his mouth-then I would have had to rescue him, if possible, one chomp he/she would have been gone. What’s funny though, is that my dog cannot reach the nest. Oh well, nature. Thanks for the info. God takes care of the little birds, and so shall I……..

  • YouRang

    The fraternal twin’s comment suggests that the original study should have used siblings also to determine if the birds are picking up on appearance or some other thing like scent.
    It occurs to me too that the actions of the pseudo-predatory students was (at least in the description) rather ritualistic and out of the norm. IOW “…hundreds who PASSED BY…” (emphasis mine). So they should have had controls who would also mimic the actions of the pseudo-predator after the birds had been taught that certain actions meant an “attack” was coming.
    Oh and by the way, yes many humans can recognize individual animals including mockingbirds. For animals with relatively undistinguished markings, we recognize behaviors.

  • Birdzilla

    The NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD is the state bird of five states its noted for its aggresive behavior and fearlessness, I even read about one that got into a conservancy in INDIANA and ate $1000 worth of rare butterflies expensive meal for the bird but he want be paying any bills for his meal

  • Joni

    I don’t care how much money they spent on a study like this as long as it wasn’t tax payer dollars.
    http://www.retirelikeme.com/

  • AndyBandi

    The above study was about a seat of all birds has had enough time to know the stuff, because of the approximately same students on the campus.
    But what about the same mockingbirds identifying one person in a constantly different group?
    This study reveals only the irrationality of human judgements about its environment as perceived.
    By the way I have all of american birds in my ipod with their songs, are them intelligent or not, I love them.
    Short random high frequency bird chirping dissolves the tension spots in the human brain, eliminating kind of headaches, about no drugs can help.

  • DC

    okay so every morning i go out to my truck before i go to work and theres this mockingbird in the same place just watchin me it calls at me and runs up and does a weird dance and hops around it never leaves it sets behind this caution cone in my yard like its waiting for somethin it never does anything till i come outside and then it goes crazy and dances ive been getting annoyed because it harrasess me everytime i pull in the drive way, ive came home early in the morning and late in the night and its there like its waiting for me and idk what it wants i couple of weeks ago i found a nest in my yard that was empty and i was thinkin maybe the birds pissed thinkin ive killed its babys i can touch the bird and everything it gets so close

  • Againali

    Our dog can’t go outside without getting divebombed by the “psycho mockingbird,” as we like to call it. Now it has gotten so obsessed with the dog that it waits for him by the sliding glass door. If our dog happens to be laying by the door, the bird flies up and down and dances on the deck outside the door, squawking the whole time. It even brought some sort of insect/worm in its mouth today. If the dog isn’t by the door, the bird sits on the railing and stares into the house. He has no fear, and when I’m sitting outside at my table, he will come and sit on one of the other chairs and stare at me…no attacking yet, but I’m trying to be really nice to him to get on his good side.

  • Patricia

    My attacks started last week. I came home from work normal routine and as I opened the front door to enter the house there were 2 of them right above my head on the roof squawking down at me. I thought it was strange and I went in the house. Now 2 days later I was dive bombed getting out of my car to enter my house. I went in the house and told my daughter and husband but they looked at me like I was crazy :) I said, ok..you go out and I will watch you from the window. Sure enough my husband went to take out the trash and here comes the “red baron” diving down at him. They surely recognize me because as soon as I pull up in front of my house – I don’t even exit my car and I see they get upset as soon as they see my car. They start spreading their wings and squawking. Now I must put a coat over my head to enter the house :)

  • Vicky

    I also have this problem! My question is: what can I do to get the mockingbird off my back? Bring it a diamond ring or invite it to a beer summit? Please help! I’m outside gardening all the time in “its” habitat, the sanctuary I, uh, created for it, and I’m not about to give that up! Any workable suggestions from Doug Levey, the author of the study, or is there no remedy ever?

  • Daryl

    Sure glad I fed my backyard mockingbirds earlier in the year. Two of them would fly up on my deck whenever they saw me outside and signal me whenever they wanted sunflower seeds and crushed peanuts, etc. I would always oblige them and they were very protective of the food I gave them. Chasing away other birds and squirrels. Now that there are two separate nests in my backyard, I guess I made their friends’ list! I watch them as they will attack squirrels, 2 neighborhood cats, chase crows away and any other threats. The neighbor that lives behind me tried once to check out the nest in the bush between my backyard and his….and get this, a friend who comes by to help with yard work also got on their enemy list. They will attack my neighbor whenever he steps out into his backyard, and when my friend comes over now … we can be out working side by side in the back and the birds will attack him and ignore me. I’ve never tried to agitate them nor go near their nests. It is so true. these birds can really recognize us (or smell us) and differientiate between people..

  • Frank Cummings

    We recently had a mockingbird lay eggs in our Date Palm in the front of our house. The nest got blown to the ground today and I hurried out to replace it in the palm tree. Unfortunatly one of the birds fell to the ground, so I placed it back into the nest. The nest was built too small and the bird fell again. My wife and I took a plastic container and placed the nest in it. We than secured the nest back to the palm tree. The little ones are now resting comfortably for the evening.

  • http://yahoo Dee

    I live in Knoxville, TN and almost every time I walk my dog a mockingbird tries to attack me. I have never bothered a nest or have I seen one. I don’t know if it’s one or they’re all in it together. It will fly from tree to tree and house to house to follow me. I have been wearing my Baltimore Orioles’ tee shirts, maybe that’s the reason; I wonder what they’ll think when I wear my Ravens’ jerseys! I think I’ll get a water gun.

  • http://www.drboyd.net Barbara Hudson

    I once rescued and raised a blue jay. When he was old enough to release, I let him go into a forest behind my house. Much to my surprise, he stayed around. He would fly to my shoulder or onto my shirt, come when I called him, recognized my car engine and came to the tree by the driveway when I arrived home from work. He was very playful: pecans, meal worms an crickets. He would perch on my finger when I held up a certain feeding container. He remained a pet for sometime.

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