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European Starlings, Sturnus vulgaris, Can Determine When People are Watching – and React Accordingly

European Starling
Researchers at the University of Bristol determined this month (May, 2008) that starlings and other birds moved away from feeders if watched by people, but continued feeding if the observers remained just as close to the feeders, but turned their eyes away.

Interesting….but I think bird keepers have known this to be true for quite some time. Most of us learned early on that parrots focus on our eyes when watching us, and that the best way to sneak up on a bird that is reluctant to return to its cage is to observe it by quick, side-wise glances. This is a good point to keep in mind when watching newly acquired finches and other shy pets.

In fact, a key to being able to get a good look at the birds I worked with in large zoo exhibits was to avoid a direct stare. Birds feeding calmly not far from me would immediately fly off if I shifted my glance, even if the rest of my body remained immobile. I had first learned this lesson in the wonderful book Hand Taming Wild Birds at the Feeder, by Alfred G. Martin (Bond Wheelwright Co., 1963), and was subsequently able to induce a variety of birds to feed from my hand.

I have a bit of eviBarn Owldence that birds “know” the meaning of other human facial features as well. I once helped to raise a barn owl, Tyto alba, that had been found on a Bronx street (yes, a surprising number of birds do live there!). The bird imprinted on people (came to view us as its “parents”), which suited it well for us in educational programs. As hand-raised birds will do, this male owl sought a human “mate” when it matured. In typical barn owl fashion, it would bring any nearby keeper a mouse – perching on our shoulders and trying to stuff its lovely nuptial gift into our mouths! Never once did the owl try an ear or eye – it seemed to be able to make, in its brain, the quite large transition from bird beak to human mouth.


About Frank Indiviglio

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I believe that I was born with an intense interest in animals, as neither I nor any of my family can recall a time when I was not fascinated by creatures large and small. One might imagine this to be an unfortunate set of circumstances for a person born and raised in the Bronx, but, in actuality, quite the opposite was true. Most importantly, my family encouraged both my interest and the extensive menagerie that sprung from it. My mother and grandmother somehow found ways to cope with the skunks, flying squirrels, octopus, caimans and countless other odd creatures that routinely arrived un-announced at our front door. Assisting in hand-feeding hatchling praying mantises and in eradicating hoards of mosquitoes (I once thought I had discovered “fresh-water brine shrimp” and stocked my tanks with thousands of mosquito larvae!) became second nature to them. My mother went on to become a serious naturalist, and has helped thousands learn about wildlife in her 16 years as a volunteer at the Bronx Zoo. My grandfather actively conspired in my zoo-buildings efforts, regularly appearing with chipmunks, boa constrictors, turtles rescued from the Fulton Fish Market and, especially, unusual marine creatures. It was his passion for seahorses that led me to write a book about them years later. Thank you very much, for a complete biography of my experience click here.
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