These Birds Learn to Recognize Humans They Hate

By Elizabeth Preston | March 29, 2016 11:38 am

skua attack

Antarctic seabirds called skuas are so clever that they can recognize individual humans after seeing them only a few times. Some Korean researchers discovered this by messing with the birds’ nests and then waiting to get attacked. They’re either very brave or have never watched The Birds.

The study took place on Antarctica’s King George Island. The animals here didn’t evolve around humans. People have only been making appearances on the island since the 1950s or so. Today 10 countries have research stations on the island. Korea Polar Research Institute scientist Won Young Lee and his coauthors study brown skuas here, which are like big, dark-colored gulls.

In the winter of 2014–2015, researchers visited skua nests once a week to check on their eggs and chicks. They suspected that the birds could recognize them, and were unhappy about humans poking at their nests. (If a skua wants you to go away, it will give not-so-subtle hints like attacking your head.)

So the researchers set up an experiment. Starting in the fourth week of their study, two researchers visited each nest at a time. One of them, the “intruder,” had checked on the nest in previous weeks. The other, “neutral” researcher had never been to the nest before. As they approached the nest, the researchers recorded how close they could get before the birds attacked. Then they split up and walked in opposite directions, observing which person the birds chased after.

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 11.33.04 AM

During tests, a “neutral human” and a “nest intruder” wore identical clothes. But the skuas weren’t fooled.

As the weeks went on, skuas attacked from greater distances. But they didn’t attack just anybody. All seven of the nesting pairs directed their attacks at the known intruder. The birds “reacted very aggressively” after five visits, the authors write, including kicking intruders in the head. They ignored the neutral humans.

Even though the researcher pairs wore identical clothing for their experiments, the skuas had no trouble spotting people who had fiddled with their nests in the past. The researchers don’t think the birds were using smell to tell them apart, since the site is windy. More likely, the birds relied on human facial features and body postures.

This is especially impressive since the birds evolved without ever seeing a human. There’s no reason they should have a natural ability to recognize us. Two other local bird species, sheathbills and Antarctic terns, don’t seem to discriminate between people.

The scientists chalk it up to “high cognitive abilities” on the part of brown skuas. In other words, they may just be especially smart. This makes sense; the birds are predators that have to be flexible to find their prey. Brown skuas have been seen chasing other large birds and taking their food. They’ll even steal drops of breast milk from nursing elephant seals. This is a bird you don’t want to cross—and after you do, you might want to wear a mask.

Images: Lee et al.

Lee, W., Han, Y., Lee, S., Jablonski, P., Jung, J., & Kim, J. (2016). Antarctic skuas recognize individual humans Animal Cognition DOI: 10.1007/s10071-016-0970-9

CATEGORIZED UNDER: birds, brains, top posts, whether to panic
  • Brett Champion

    And this of course immediately came to mind:

  • Stone Piper

    Could it be the scent trail?

  • Dan Alvírez

    I saw a documentary about crows that showed they recognize people they don’t like. These birds are acting similarly. The difference here being the presence of humans. The crows were studied in Seattle, I believe.

    • Sylvia Bullock

      Crows in my neighborhood in MA appeared to like the woman that put out treats for them. They saw her provide them. In return, they started bringing “presents” such as colorful trash or smooth pebbles and placing them in the same spot.

      • Maia

        Hmmm. I’ve been feeding crows for years…and never got a trinket! :) However, they do now hang out with me, after a fashion, from time to time sitting close by for long periods AFTER eating, as though being companionable. They aren’t doing anything but looking around, dozing, primping a bit…I am pleased when they do this. B etter than a trinket.

        • Emkay

          I startled a sleeping crow and it hated me forever, after that…

  • Yvonne Goodes

    Having had a pet cockatiel who is now 23 we know this. He has distinctive whistles that are his “names” for certain members of the family, can go months between seeing them and get totally excited when he hears their whistle, or even a voice on the phone. Each family member has a different relationship with him and he treats each differently. Not only that he has moods too and gets clearly frustrated when he cannot convey what he wants… e.g. a favourite toy has been knocked over or moved to the wrong place. As a cockatiel is a non – predator and seed eater we are not at all surprised that birds on a ” higher” level can do this.

    • Maia

      Thanks for this fascinating comment. But I know we are seriously and sadly underestimating the intelligence of ALL avians, we just don’t know it yet.

  • Rowdie

    When I was a youth (many decades ago) I would hunt Crows an Starlings that devastated our crops. Both of these birds could spot a rifle. A long stick or broom handle had no effect; even a toy rifle of the correct size didn’t faze them. But if brought out a real rifle; they were gone.

    • Maia

      You’re right. I used to worry that my crow friends who be suspicious of my broom, but no. They go by faces, and I think maybe, the way we move. (You know the way we can recognize a friend, family member, by their posture and gestures, etc.)
      Starlings are also very intelligent, and unfairly hated for their habits of traveling in large flocks. But the beauty of their swooping flights takes your breath away!

      • Rowdie

        Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

        • Maia

          Does that mean you don’t see the starlight “clouds” as beautiful?

          • Rowdie

            Starlight clouds?

          • Maia

            Sorry, typo. Meant to write starling “cloud”, those ever-changing streams of them in flight.

          • Rowdie

            They are interesting. Can’t say beautiful. but certainly interesting to watch. If only they stayed in the sky and left the produce alone.

  • nik

    As birds are considered to be the descendents of dinosaurs, then they have had many millions of years of development more than humans, so their survival abilities will have been well developed.
    Recognising an enemy would be part of that.
    Added to that is the fact that birds eyesight is superior to humans anyway, [eyes of a hawk] so recognising an enemy by small details should be easy for them.

  • daqu

    “In the winter of 2014–2015, researchers visited skua nests once a week to check on their eggs and chicks. They suspected that the birds could recognize them, and were unhappy about humans poking at their nests.”

    Extremely unfortunate choice of punctuation in the second sentence, unless someone wanted nobody to understand it.

  • Jim


Like the wily and many-armed cephalopod, Inkfish reaches into the far corners of science news and brings you back surprises (and the occasional sea creature). The ink is virtual but the research is real.

About Elizabeth Preston

Elizabeth Preston is a science writer whose articles have appeared in publications including Slate, Nautilus, and National Geographic. She's also the former editor of the children's science magazine Muse, where she still writes in the voice of a know-it-all bovine. She lives in Massachusetts. Read more and see her other writing here.


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