Jackdaws know when they are being watched

These canny birds know the significance of eye contact...
10 April 2009


Jackdaw on the North Devon coast, England. Taken by Adrian Pingstone in July 2004 and released to the public domain.


Do you behave differently when you're being watched?

It now seems that Jackdaws, birds related to crows and ravens, do the same.  At the least, they recognise the importance of the human eye with regards vision and attention, and seem to be more aware of being watched by a stranger.

Writing in Current Biology, Auguste van Bayern from Oxford University reports that hand-raised Jackdaws take much longer to retrieve a food reward when a person was directing their gaze at the food, compared to when the person was looking away.  This hesitation was only seen when the person doing the watching was a stranger, and so potentially a threat.

Even more interesting than this, the birds could interpret human communicative gestures, such as changing gaze and pointing, to help find hidden food.  Unchanging eye gaze alone did not help to direct them to the food.

This is the first animal we have known to be particularly sensitive to the eyes.  Chimpanzees and dogs rely on head or body orientation as an indication of attention, but only Jackdaws seem to acknowledge the role of the eyes in visual perception.

We're not certain exactly why just yet, but it certainly indicates that we have underestimated the intelligence and psychology of these birds.  Jackdaws have eyes that are very similar to ours, and von Bayern puts forward one hypothesis, saying that:

"Jackdaws ... 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 partner's perspective."


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