Magpies think faster when people are looking at them. If you’re one of those folks who tend to freeze up when all eyes are upon you, then you might be surprised by a new study from researchers at Seoul National University in South Korea which was published Wednesday in open access journal PLOS One.
The leader of the magpie research team Dr. Sang-im Lee said that they got the idea for this study of predator/prey relationships from their experience with the intelligent Black-billed Magpie species, which is related to other birds highly regarded for their brainpower, including crows and ravens.
According to Lee: “For a long time we had this impression that somehow magpies know that we are watching them because they often fly away from us when we observe them. But when we don’t observe them, we can pass them pretty close-by but they don’t fly away!”
Many birders, hunters, and other outdoor animal hobbyists have noticed the same thing. If you don’t look directly at a bird, it will often allow you to approach much more closely than if you gaze directly at it. I myself have a sort of sideways walk that I use to approach birds, especially with a camera, which many species apparently can’t distinguish from a weapon.
Magpies and other birds seem to maintain a situational awareness of the human gaze, perhaps because the birds believe that if you’re looking at them hard, you might be thinking of preying on them.
Now animal watchers have new evidence from the South Korean magpie research team that the birds make faster decisions and take faster action when you look directly at them. It didn’t really change what decision the magpies made, with some choosing to fly and some choosing to continue to forage. However, the direct gaze did prompt the magpies to make the decision faster.
The researchers noted that Black-billed Magpies have lived near humans for at least several centuries, if not millennia. Apparently, the intelligent birds have developed the ability to read human faces and/or actions fast enough to make the snap decisions — and the birds are willing to put their skills to use when you’re staring right at them.
Many of us had already guessed that magpies are thinking about us. But are you surprised to find out that the magpies might think faster when people are looking?
[Photo of Gobi, one of the Black-billed Magpies in the experiment, by P.G.Jablonski via Eurekalert]
[top photo Black-billed Magpie by Alan Wilson and Nature’s Pics Online via Wikimedia Commons]