Neurophilosophy




THE United States military funded research into using networks of ‘spy crows’ to locate soldiers who are missing in action, and extended the work to see if the birds might be useful in helping them to find Osama bin Laden. The idea may seem far-fetched, but unlike some military research programs (such as the Stargate remote-viewing program) it is actually based on sound science.

It is well established that crows are highly intelligent. They are known to use tools in the wild, and have remarkably sophisticated tool-making abilities. In the lab, they can solve complex problems, such as using three tools in sequence to obtain food. Other members of the Corvid family have equally amazing cognitive skills. The Clark’s nutcracker, for example, caches up to 100,000 nuts in dozens of different locations at the end of spring, and can find them all again up to nine months later, even if they are covered with snow. They have even evolved clever strategies to guard their caches – if, while storing nuts, they are aware of being watched, they will return some time later to retrieve the nuts and bury them again elsewhere.  

The idea of using crows to find the world’s most wanted man was based on the work of John Marzluff, a wildlife biologist at the University of Washington who has been studying crow behaviour for over 20 years. Working with a population of wild American crows on the university campus in Seattle, Marzluff and his colleagues noticed that birds which they had previously captured seemed to be wary of them and were harder to catch.

The researchers therefore decided to investigate the possibility that crows can recognize human faces, and devised a relatively experiment using rubber masks. They went out on campus and in the surrounding areas wearing either a ‘caveman’ mask or a Dick Cheney mask. Those who wore the caveman mask caught and banded between 7 and 15 crows on each excursion, but those who wore the Dick Cheney mask did not. 

In the following months, they went out wearing the same masks, walking around  the university campus in pre-determined routes without bothering the crows. They also recruited volunteers to do the same. The crows consistently harassed anyone they saw wearing the caveman mask, scolding them with loud squawks and even mobbing them.

This happened regardless of the size, sex or walking style of the person wearing the mask., and even when the mask was partly hidden under a hat or worn upside down. They were, however, indifferent to the neutral mask – when they saw both masks simultaneously, they would ignore the person wearing wearing it, and instead follow the person wearing the caveman mask and scold them aggressively.

osama bin laden mask.jpgEvidently, the birds had perceived the caveman mask as threatening during the initial part of the experiment, and had remembered it.

What’s more, their memory of the mask was persistent – nearly three years later, they continued to attack anyone who wore it. Marzluff says that he has been scolded by far more birds than had been originally trapped, suggesting that they not only recognized the mask, but had transmitted the information to their offspring and to other birds in the flock.

Marzluff and his colleagues published  their findings about a year ago in the journal Animal Behaviour. Not surprisingly, military funding for the research ended long before they had obtained any evidence that crows can recognize human faces, and it is unlikely that the bird played any part in finding bin Laden.  

“So, they have a long term memory, very acute discrimination abilities, and if a group of crows knew bin Laden as an enemy, they would certainly indicate his presence when they next saw him,” he says. “One of the experimental branches of research that was used to try to find him was to have crows or ravens of the local area trained to identify his face.”

Related:


Marzluff, J., et al. (2010). Lasting recognition of threatening people by wild American crows. Anim. Behav. 79: 699-707. DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2009.12.022

Comments

  1. #1 Neurobonkers
    May 8, 2011

    This is amazing, hilarious and slightly terrifying at the same time.

    The link to the paper is broken, if you could be so kind to send me a copy (neurobonkers @ gmail.com) I’d be very grateful.

    I can’t get the image out of my head of soldiers being paid to wander round fields with that mask on. Absolutely bonkers.

  2. #2 natselrox
    May 8, 2011

    I had read the earlier posts on avian and corvid intelligence and this one lives up to their standards! Brilliant!

    This one would probably be more appropriate to the corvid post but… Joshua Klein did a TED talk on this.

    And I’d recommend everyone reading this to watch the tool-use videos in the apposite pages.

  3. #3 deevybee
    May 8, 2011

    Well, you know what Al Qaieda will say about this?
    Stone the crows!

  4. #4 Cuttlefish
    May 8, 2011

    Reminds me (both in what the birds are doing, and in what the humans are doing) of Skinner’s “Pigeons in a Pelican” in which pigeons were trained as the guidance system for specially designed missiles, during WWII.

    The visual capacity of birds is remarkable, and the idea to take advantage of the crows’ natural mobbing behavior is brilliant–evolution did much of the training.

  5. The use animals for military purposes is nothing new. Not only did Skinner conduct research on pigeon guided missiles, the military seriously investigated the use of bats as bomb delivery devices against Japan during WWII. This research was undertaken by psychologist Donald R. Griffin. Read more about that research here: http://ahp.apps01.yorku.ca/?p=949

  6. #6 Mats H
    May 8, 2011

    Black Hawk Down 2 :D

  7. #7 Eric Michael Johnson
    May 8, 2011

    Should we be troubled that this is the same tactic Saruman used to find Isildur’s ring?

  8. #8 Pierce R. Butler
    May 8, 2011

    “One of the experimental branches of research that was used to try to find him was to have crows or ravens of the local area trained to identify his face.”

    I love the image of CIA agents in trenchcoats, fedoras, and Bin Laden masks roaming all over the Pakistani-Afghan borderlands, yelling and chasing and throwing stuff at every black-feathered bird they saw. (Would the regulation dark glasses go over or under the mask?)

    Am not sure how the locals would react, but suspect that even those who haven’t seen V for Vendetta would soon be shopping for OBL masks of their own (some probably being worn under burqas, further confusing the poor corvidae.

  9. #9 Iqhira
    May 9, 2011

    Ummm, if you have to train the crows in the area that you suspect the fugitive is in, that would presume either you knew more or less where he was or otherwise you would need a moerse lot of crows

  10. #10 theo Dzielak
    May 10, 2011

    What are the ethical issues in using a non-human species for specific political and military ends? Humans sure are arrogant in their belief in the right to use and exploit non-human species for their own use, including violence.

  11. #11 Thomas
    May 10, 2011

    And people laughed at the Saudis for suspecting a vulture of being a Mossad agent…

  12. #12 ST
    May 10, 2011

    I love the image of CIA agents in trenchcoats, fedoras, and Bin Laden masks roaming all over the Pakistani-Afghan borderlands, yelling and chasing and throwing stuff at every black-feathered bird they saw. (Would the regulation dark glasses go over or under the mask.Thanks for sharing.

  13. #13 Leo
    May 10, 2011

    Even more ridiculous than star wars. A stupid waste of money. None of my crow friends would ever participate in such nonsense, they just cawed their heads off.

  14. #14 steven
    May 10, 2011

    That’s why.. I helped a sick crow a few years ago, he is still coming back every winter with one or two other crows, just a few days eat a bit bird seed then they leave.

  15. #15 self hypnosis script
    May 10, 2011

    I wouldn’t know if I will believe that these black crows are actually spies from US. I am just grateful that the man behind the 9/11 tragedy was apprehended.

  16. #16 John Samaris
    May 11, 2011

    This looks more like a hollywood plot than the work of a biologist.Anyway MR laden is dead now.

  17. #17 herky stubby
    May 11, 2011

    This method takes a lot of time to develop. But if they had already prepared for this, then its preferable. Rather than making those they so called “hitech instruments”.

  18. #18 Agent red poo
    May 11, 2011

    This explain this:

    http://scienceblogs.com/tetrapodzoology/2010/11/epic_cat_fight.php

    Crow like human. Crow remember bad experience. Crow fight bad experience.

  19. #19 jiggly
    May 12, 2011

    When they found him, would the crows have sung,

    “I seen Obama that winked his eye!
    But I be done seen ’bout ev’rything
    When I see a Obama die.”

  20. #20 Mr. Lifequotes
    May 18, 2011

    Oh, the muddled thinking that abounds!! Slightly off-topic, but to the extent Bin Laden is a terrorist, might one label the U.S. to be a terrorist, too? Al Qaeda may have a casual disregard for American life (about 3,000 died in New York), but so does the U.S. have a disregard for Muslim life (110,000 civilian deaths in Iraq, 9,000 civilian death in Afghanistan). Is the coalition a terrorist body?

    Those that “profess” that, are guilty of “false analogy”. So without entering into a lengthy forensic analysis, here are the major points of difference:

    # Al Qiada INSTIGATED terrorist actions for perverted religious/political purposes.

    # The US Admin RESPONDED militarily, to protect non-military personnel.

    # AQ continues to instigate & remains un-remorseful and vows endless action.

    # The US is and remains, reluctant to continue, unnecessarily.

    # OBL’s group TARGETS indiscriminate murder of as many unarmed civilians as possible.

    # The US TARGETS terrorist groups only and AVOIDS civilians (albeit somewhat unsuccessfully).

    # AQ TARGETS all nationalities (even Muslims), of all ages, in all countries.

    # The Coalition TARGETS ONLY the sources of terrorists hotspots.

    # AQ operates virtually unilaterally to no rules of engagement.

    # The US operates within UN (world body) approved guidelines.

    # AQ utilizes largely militarily untrained personnel and happily “sacrifices” them.

    # The Coalition utilizes only trained military forces, and lovingly “protects” them.

    # AQ et al deliberately launch attacks hiding behind their own civilian “human shields”; kindergartens, hospitals, mosques, schools etc.

    # The Western Alliance attacks under their own national emblems, with no possibility of avoiding civilian casualties.

    # AQ’s aim is attention-seeking through mass murder.

    # America’s aim is world order, through policing.

    # AQ’s aim is dictatorial world domination through harsh Sharia law.

    # The US aim is freedom for all men, including Muslims.

    # AQ respects martyrdom through death.

    # America respects the sanctity of life.

    This list is in no way, exhaustive, but I hope shows that this argument compares apples to pine-apples. Great post however, and thanks for letting me share.

  21. #21 poptart
    June 17, 2011

    Is anyone else reminded of the terrorist crow trainer from Four Lions?

  22. #22 Comic iPhone Cases
    July 12, 2011

    “So, they have a long term memory, very acute discrimination abilities, and if a group of crows knew bin Laden as an enemy, they would certainly indicate his presence when they next saw him,”

    How would they be trained to know bin Laden as an enemy? Would they have someone dressed as bin laden walk in on them every day and beat them with a stick? I mean come on. I know birds are smart. I have a really smart parrot but for real. I hope our mighty tax dollars aren’t funding things like this.