One does not begin the day expecting to find kinship with a particular species of Antarctic seabird, but here we are. A post by science writer Elizabeth Preston over at Discover this week is headlined “These Birds Learn to Recognize Humans They Hate,” which really says it all: Over recent years, these birds — called skuas — have apparently memorized the look of the jerk scientists who have messed with their nests. When those particular scientists — but not others — come back, the birds attack.
Preston explains the experiment, recounted in a recent paper in Animal Cognition:
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.
Each time, the birds attacked — but their attacks were always targeted toward the scientist who had previously messed around with their nests; they ignored the researcher they hadn’t seen before. You can see this happening in this video the researchers recorded — the researcher who moves to the right is the guilty one.
All the scientists wore the same clothing for the experiment, and the researchers don’t think the birds were going after them because of their individual scents, either — it was too windy for that. “More likely, the birds relied on human facial features and body postures,” Preston writes.
These are not the only birds who are especially skilled at recognizing the individual jerk humans who absolutely deserve their hatred. A recent study of crows in captivity, for instance, suggested that these birds memorize the faces of the humans who had initially captured them — and they then warn their crow friends about them. “Even after going for a year without seeing the threatening human, the crows would scold the person on sight, cackling, swooping and dive-bombing in mobs of 30 or more,” wrote Stephanie Pappas in 2011 for LiveScience. And a follow-up study of crows using brain-imaging technology found that bird brains look a lot like human brains when it comes to recognizing the faces of people they know.
But, really, what scientists know about the crows and human facial recognition makes this study of Antarctic skuas even more fascinating. Crows evolved with humans, and so it makes sense that, over time, they learned to recognize the ones that were more likely to give them trouble. But none of these Antarctic birds had ever seen a human until about the 1950s, when scientists arrived on their home at King George Island in Antarctica. These are, in other words, some advanced hater skills. Respect.