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THURSDAY: Crows – the Organic Aerial Surveillance Vehicle
26 December 2013
A very few of us can brag that we never forget a name, but a lot of people will tell you they never forget a face. Crows don’t forget faces either. You won’t remember their face, but they’ll remember yours . . . if, of course, you are a “person of interest” in their eyes.
Long before we started worrying about the intelligence community watching us and long before the intelligence community was even planning to start watching us, “someone” else was watching both them and us and . . . just about everything else. They were crows.
DARPA has, and will, invest millions of dollars in aerial surveillance and reconnaissance drones, like the Maverick and the developing Robo-Raven. The hope is to imitate the flight, movements, and appearance of actual birds while “adding” surveillance and reconnaissance equipment to these flying drones that will be dismissed by viewers as passing birds. However, neither DARPA nor their contractors may suspect that they aren’t adding anything to their mechanical birds that the real things don’t already have.
A group of birds of the genus corvid, including crows and ravens, have every surveillance and reconnaissance ability of their mechanical imitators. But the crows can do something more. They interpret the data “on board” as it’s received. And their abilities to recognize, interpret and communicate what they observe would be the envy of any and every DARPA contractor.
In other words, a pervasive group of flying eyes has been systematically watching us (and the rest of the world) since before the dawn or recorded history. Just crows? Yes, just those ever-present large black birds. They can recognize your face in a crowd of humans and, then, remember your face, communicate what they see to each other, and even plan and conspire. What are they planning? What are they conspiring about? We don’t know. Actually, it’s all pretty weird when you think about it.
The FBI is working on a type of biometrics called facial recognition. Biometrics, generally, is the computer recognition of human characteristics such as voice, gate and facial features. DARPA’s Robo-Raven may, someday, relay surveillance footage back to a computer, which will, then, attempt a facial identification of any human beings in the video feed. But this robotic bird will be doing nothing the real thing wasn’t doing when the Egyptians were building the pyramids.
The crows’ ability to recognize and remember faces remained unproven until John M. Marzluff, a wildlife biologist at the University of Washington, decided to test the crows’ facial recognition abilities. Why ? After 20 years of working with these birds, which included capturing and tagging, it seemed that particular birds were “wary” of particular scientists and tried harder to avoid capture. He had long wondered whether the birds could identify particular researchers. Although the attempts to evade capture were little more than a minor annoyance, he decided it was worth a test.
Marzluff performed the test on the University’s Seattle campus. He used Halloween-type masks, which were worn by researchers when they captured, tagged and released seven crows. The birds certainly didn’t enjoy the capture and tagging. The question: Would the birds remember the features of the masks worn by the taggers.
Later, two groups of volunteers strolled through the campus, one group wearing the same masks worn by the taggers and another group of wearing the same type of mask, but one with different features. Did the crows remember? Oh, did they. While the volunteers wearing the different masks were ignored, those wearing the taggers’ mask were, first, yelled at. The crows squawked and “scolded” the wearers of the offensive mask with obviously hostile calls. However, as if to dispel all doubt about their displeasure, the crows dive-bombed a few of the volunteers but, again, only those wearing the offensive mask.
Let it be known that crows are not only vocal birds, but quite aggressive. As David Dietle put in his excellent article on the amazing abilities of these birds, crows “hold a grudge.” If you read Dietle’s full article you’ll realize that if you are on a crow’s bad side, . . . well . . . you may have something to worry about.
But Marzluff’s test revealed a few things no one expected. When volunteers wore multiple types of masks and strolled through campus, in a group, the wearers of the taggers’ mask were singled out for scolding and dive-bombing by crows other than the original seven that had been captured and tagged. So, how did the other crows find out about the faces of the taggers? Well, apparently, not by imitating or joining in the attack after the original seven began the festivities. As amazing as it sounds, it’s likely that the attackers “heard’ about the facial features of their victims from the original seven. Crow behavior implicates an amazing system of vocal communication that has never been well researched and is not well understood.
Apparently, crow calls are extremely diverse and demonstrate clear regional variation. As David Dietle explains it, these birds have “dialects” – something almost inseparable from language. Some crow calls have been interpreted to mean certain things in certain contexts, but sufficient studies have never been done to determine the extent of crow language. Therefore, it’s impossible to estimate the degree of articulate communication between and among crows
Crows have usually large brains for their body size. In fact, these birds have unusually large brains — period. The size the crow brain is about the same as that of a chimpanzee. Nathan Emery and Nicola Clayton, from the departments of animal behavior and experimental psychology at Cambridge University in England, have recently published a study in Science discussing evidence suggesting that the crow and its fellow corvids may have cognitive abilities that match those of chimpanzees and gorillas.
So, can crows not only remember your face, but describe you to other crows to the extent that these others will recognize you on sight? Well, there’s a high probability that this amazing suggestion is true. By the way, when the Seattle experiment was repeated with more normal-looking masks, the birds performed just as “well.”
The reader may be thinking, “If I offend a crow, maybe I can ‘lay low’ until all the crows, alive now, are dead.” Sorry, that plan won’t work. In the Seattle test, subsequent generations of crows, birds that had never seen the offending masks, recognized them and attacked the wearers in the complete absence of the original seven birds that had been tagged. I don’t know about you, but this makes even me just a bit nervous . . . and I feed wild birds regularly.
In fact, certainly crows could give any elephant a run for the money when it comes to “never forgetting.” There are numerous documented reports of whole flocks of crows avoiding homes, locations, even communities in which even a single crow has been killed. It’s hard to believe that literally thousands of birds, for generations, would avoid a specific location on account of single death of one of their own, but they apparently do.
In evaluating these reports, David Dietle made an interesting observation. If you mess with a crow, thousands of crows will remember your address for generations. In other words, as many as a few hundred thousand crows will “know where you live.”
I can imagine some readers thinking, “Yes, crows do remember.” “But if they don’t like me, they’ll just scold me and dive at me.” “I can deal with that.” And you’re probably right. However, you should know some of the things crows can do – if they want to.
Consider a certain group of crows that loved nuts, but couldn’t crack the shells themselves. These birds took the nuts to an intersection with a traffic light. Spreading the uncracked nuts on the road, they waited until cars ran over the nuts and cracked the shells. However, the crows didn’t fly out after each nut was cracked. They waited and watched the traffic light. When it displayed a signal that would stop traffic, the birds flew into the road and retrieved the nuts. Then, took them to a safe location and ate their meal at their leisure.
Imagine what crows could do to their enemies if they really wanted to. These birds are intelligent planners and communicators. Also, they hold grudges and have long memories. Oh, I forgot to add that these birds display great ingenuity and they are very, very patient. Nervous yet?
As I said, I feed wild birds regularly. I used to do this out of an empathic affection for wildlife. But now, I look at these feedings as something more like payments of “protection money.”
A “must read”:
David Dietle, “6 Terrifying Ways Crows Are Way Smarter Than You Think”