, Volume 14, Issue 6, pp 817-825
Date: 26 May 2011

Wild birds recognize individual humans: experiments on magpies, Pica pica

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The ability to distinguish among heterospecific individuals has been reported in only a few animal species. Humans can be viewed as a special type of heterospecifics because individuals differ widely in behavior, ranging from non-threatening to very threatening toward animals. In this study, we asked whether wild magpies can recognize individual humans who had accessed their nests. We compared the behavior of breeding pairs toward individual humans before and after the humans climbed up to the birds’ nests, and also toward climbers and non-climbers. We have evidence for (i) aggressive responses of the magpie pairs toward humans who had repeatedly accessed their nests (climbers) and a lack of response to humans who had not accessed the nest (non-climbers); (ii) a total lack of scolding responses toward climbers by magpie pairs whose nests had not been accessed; (iii) a selective aggressive response to the climber when a climber and a non-climber were presented simultaneously. Taken together, these results suggest that wild magpies can distinguish individual humans that pose a threat to their nests from humans that have not behaved in a threatening way. The magpie is only the third avian species, along with crows and mockingbirds, in which recognition of individual humans has been documented in the wild. Here, we propose a new hypothesis (adopted from psychology) that frequent previous exposure to humans in urban habitats contributes to the ability of birds to discriminate among human individuals. This mechanism, along with high cognitive abilities, may predispose some species to learn to discriminate among human individuals. Experimental tests of these two mechanisms are proposed.