Human Eyes Speak Volumes toย Birds

Birders know that birds are geniuses at reading human body languageโ€Šโ€”โ€Šbut how good are they at this?

by GrrlScientist for | @GrrlScientist

Adult Eurasian jackdaw (Corvus monedula). This is the smallest species of corvid (crows and ravens). (Credit: Maxwell Hamilton / CC BYย 2.0)

Those of you who go birding will know what I am talking about when I say that birds are so capable of reading human body language that they know when we are looking at them, which frequently causes them to hide from our gaze. However, this capacity has never before been scientifically studied in birds, until now, that is.
ย A newly published paper reports on studies of hand-raised, tame Eurasian Jackdaws, Corvus monedula, a small relative of the crows. Jackdawsโ€™ eyes have a dark pupil surrounded by a striking silvery irisโ€Šโ€”โ€Šsimilar to human eyes.

Adult Eurasian jackdaw (Corvus monedula). Its silvery eyes. are easy to see from a distance. (Credit: John Haslam / CC BYย 2.0)

โ€œI think they can generalize to human eyes somehow, and interpret human eyes as eyes,โ€ explained Auguste von Bayern, lead author on the paper, formerly of the University of Cambridge and now located at the University of Oxford.

Because these birds were handfed and were therefore very familiar with people, the researchers believe these birds were even more capable of interpreting human gaze and body language than their wild counterparts.

โ€œJackdaws seem to recognize the eyeโ€™s role in visual perception, or at the very least they are extremely sensitive to the way that human eyes are oriented,โ€ she continued.

To test the birdsโ€™ ability to interpret human gaze, ten hand-raised jackdaws were placed into a threatening situation where a preferred food itemโ€Šโ€”โ€Šthe โ€œrewardโ€โ€Šโ€”โ€Šwas presented to them while in the presence of a human. The threatening situation was the result of being in the presence of a person who was a stranger to the birds and comparing the birdsโ€™ reactions with their reactions when in the presence of a person who was familiar to them (figure 1);

Figure 1. The Jackdawsโ€™ Response to Five Different Attentional States Displayed by an Unfamiliar and a Familiar Human. Box plots displaying median latency (s) to retrieve the food in the presence of an unfamiliar (white box plots) and a familiar (shaded box plots) human displaying different attentional states (B, C, G, P, or F). Whiskers designate the 90% and 10% confidence intervals. Open circles denote outliers. [largerย view].

These data show that the birds took longer to retrieve the reward when the stranger was looking toward the food item than when they were looking away from it.

To determine the jackdawsโ€™ response to more subtle attentional cues and to control for any potentially unwanted behavioral cues by the human, the team then tested the jackdaws using a series of digital photographs of a different strangerโ€™s face that displayed several attentional states (figure 2);

Figure 2. The Jackdawsโ€™ Response to Six Digitally Presented Attentional States of an Unfamiliar Humanโ€™s Face. Box plots displaying median latency (s) to take the food in the presence of an unfamiliar person displaying different attentional states (F, O, PG, G, P, and C) presented on a TFT monitor. Whiskers designate the 90% and 10% confidence intervals. Open circles denote outliers. The hatched boxes denote the โ€attention towardโ€ conditions, whereas the white boxes designate the โ€attention awayโ€ conditions. [link].

They found that, independent of the personโ€™s facial orientation in the image, the number of visible eyes, or the perceptual similarity or dissimilarity of the strangerโ€™s attentional states, the time until the birds approach towards the food item depended on whether the humanโ€™s eye(s) were oriented toward the food reward.

Because Jackdaws are cooperative species where members of a pair will share actively direct each othersโ€™ attention to particular objects, the researchers then tested whether they would respond to a cooperative task with a human partner. To do this, the researchers baited one of two identical opaque chambers with a food reward. To determine if the Jackdaws were reading eye gaze or body language preferentially in a cooperative task, the human partner provided one of four distinct social cues to the birds; either gazing at the baited chamber without turning her head (G) or turning her head towards the baited chamber while gazing at it (G + H), and two body language cues; first where the stranger alternated her gaze repeatedly between the subject and the baited container (GA), or pointing at the baited chamber with her finger (CBP) (figure 3);

Figure 3. The Jackdawsโ€™ Responses to Human Communicative and Attentional Cues in an Object Choice Task. (A) Photographs of four social cues used in experiment 3 (CDP, GA, H, and G). (B) Box plots displaying the median percentage correct performance in choosing the box containing the hidden food across the four conditions; communicative cues (CDP and GA) are designated by white boxes and attentional cues (G + H) are designated by hatched boxes. Whiskers designate the 90% and 10% confidence intervals. [largerย view].

According these data, the birds successfully interpreted human communicative gestures, such as gaze alternation and pointing, to help them find hidden food. However, the birds were unsuccessful in using static cues, including eye gaze or head orientation in this experiment.

Their skittish response to strangers may reflect an evolved response to potential predators or other threats, when subtle eye cues are less important than head orientation, Bayern wrote. Predatory birds such as owls and goshawks turn their entire head when looking at a prey animal, although, by that time, itโ€™s probably too late for Jackdaws to successfully react to a predatorโ€™s subtler eye movements, even if they are close enough to see them.

These findings are especially interesting because most other species investigated so far, including chimpanzees and dogs, are not very sensitive to eye orientation and eye gaze, von Bayern pointed out. Rather, she wrote, chimps and dogs seem to rely on other cues such as head or body orientation in determining the looking direction of others but donโ€™t appear to appreciate the eyes as the visual organs.

โ€œAs it looks now, apes are surprisingly bad at looking at eyes, because it seems like other cues such as head direction are much more important [to them],โ€ Bayern said. โ€œBut I think they understand a bit.โ€

This supports the theory that social sophistication may select for intelligence in evolution, Bayern said. Jackdaws are corvids, which are among the most intelligent groups of birds along with parrots.These results suggest that birds may deserve more respect for their mental abilities.

โ€œWe may have underestimated the psychological realms of birds,โ€ von Bayern remarked. โ€œJackdaws, amongst many other birds, form pair bonds for life and need to closely coordinate and collaborate with their partner, which requires an efficient way of communicating and sensitivity to their partnerโ€™s perspective.โ€


Auguste M.P. von Bayern & Nathan J. Emery (2009). Jackdaws Respond to Human Attentional States and Communicative Cues in Different Contexts, Current Biology, 19 (7) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.02.062 [free PDF].

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Originally published at on 5 April 2009.