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Don't Be Alarmed: We're Researching Crows

When professor John Marzluff of the University of Washington researched how crows remember faces, he donned a mask.

In one case, a Dick Cheney mask.

He then caught crows with a net, banded them and let them go. None were hurt – but they were pretty mad, as he told KUOW's Katy Sewall in 2013.

Then something curious happened. In the weeks and months that followed, Marzluff would pull on the mask and walk about campus. Almost immediately, he would hear the caw of angry crows overhead.

“I’ve got the whole group of birds right on me as soon as I step out of my office,” he said.

Not only did they hold a grudge, they seemed to build their ranks as time went on, emitting a low-frequency call that said, essentially, there’s danger nearby.

This signaled to Marzluff that crows remembered his face. Some of the crows may have seen him netting other birds – but he was confident that the crows were rallying around their flock.

Marzluff tested the crows with an upside-down mask – and they still recognized him. People and sheep couldn’t recognize an upside-down face as well, he said. Thinking about it, that made sense.

“They’re always above us anyway so they basically see our heads upside down all the time,” he said. “We even had some birds turn their heads upside down when they looked at us with the mask that’s inverted.”

Marzluff has also been involved with brain science of crows.

“We look at how the brain reacted when a crow looked out and saw the person that captured them,” he said. “Or in converse, the person that had been feeding and taking care of it for a few weeks. And the areas in the brain that are activated are the same parts of the brain that would be activated in us.”

For danger – the right hemisphere of the amygdala, for example.  

Seattleites interact with crows most often during late spring. That’s when crows tend to dive-bomb people and animals they perceive as dangerous. Marzluff, who teaches in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, told KUOW’s Jeannie Yandel that’s crow dive-bombing season.

“It really peaks around spring, when the young crows are just starting to leave the nest on their own, and the parents are watching over them,” he said. “The young aren’t very good at flying and hiding yet, so they come in close contact with people.”

Humans sometimes mistake young crows as being in distress – they’re scrawny, lack plumage and often rest, which makes them look feeble.

But don't pick up those babies, Marzluff said. Crow moms and dads get stressed out when the babies get too close to humans.

“It views you as a predator or a potential threat to that young, and so it's diving at you to try to get you to move on and leave that area,” said Marzluff, author of “Gifts of the Crow” and “Welcome to Subirdia.”

Marzluff offered three remedies: ignore them, take another path (and bring an umbrella to shield yourself), or wear a mask with eyes on the back of your head. Crows attack from behind, he said, and they don’t attack faces.

“Your neighbors might wonder what the heck you're doing, but you'd probably be pretty safe from the birds," he said.  

This story is based on interviews throughout the years with John Marzluff by Katie Sewall and Jeannie Yandel.