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Research Update – Do Parrots Recognize Individual Human Faces?

Those Observant Parrots
Parrot keepers are well aware that individual birds often “take to” one person or to people of one sex only, and respond with aggression or fear to others.  Long –term pet parrots most definitely react differently to the various people living in the household – seeming to know what they can “get away with” with one person,  when to expect a scratch on the head from another, and so on.

The Brightest Birds
Wildlife biologists at the University of Washington have recently (August, 2008) confirmed that crows do indeed recognize and remember the faces of individual people.  Crows and their relatives – jays, ravens and magpies – are among the most intelligent of birds, and are often compared to parrots in this regard.  I’m quite sure that the results of this research would be duplicated if conducted on parrots.

The Experiment
Researchers wearing masks designated as “dangerous” trapped, banded and released crows on the university’s grounds.  While subsequently walking about the campus wearing the “dangerous” masks, the researchers were consistently scolded and mobbed (harassed) by crows….when unmasked or wearing “neutral” masks, the researchers went unnoticed.  When paired with “neutral” mask wearers on walks, only the “dangerous” researchers drew the crows’ wrath.

Birds Teaching Birds
What’s more, although only 7 crows were trapped (the experiment was later repeated with a larger sample), 47 individual crows scolded the researchers.  Although crows will respond to the alarm calls of others, in some instances the originally trapped crows were not present when others sent up the alarm – obviously the trapped crows had somehow passed along their new-found knowledge to their neighbors!

Implication for Conservation
We’ve long known that fledgling birds will imprint (bond with, to the exclusion of their own species) upon general human characteristics…while hand-rearing barn owls and other species destined for release, I always work from behind a curtain, and such is standard protocol at most zoos.  This study, however, offers the first concrete evidence of individual face recognition.

I’m sure you parrot owners have many stories of your pets’ own remarkable abilities.

An interesting article providing further evidence of the keen environmental and people-oriented awareness possessed by parrots is posted at:


  1. avatar

    I bought a Mexican red headed amazon about 16 years ago and had him for about 4 years until I moved. my neighbors sister wanted him so I gave him to her. I have regreted it for all these years and today my old neighbor called me and asked if I wanted him back because she is ill. I quickly responded “yes,yes I do”. my question is will he remember me? my voice? all the things I taught him? I cannot wait to get my Orvy Porvy back! it’s been a dream come true but I have so many questions..

  2. avatar

    Hi Sandie,

    Interesting story! I don’t believe much work has been done as regards memory (of people) over such a long period, so it’s hard to say. AS for what was taught years ago, memory may be influenced by what the bird has learned in the intervening 12 years. Bear in mind also that a change in owners, locations after 12 years may be very traumatic, and it may take time for the bird to settle in and adjust, so don’t become discouraged if all does not go well right away. I hope all goes well..take notes, as this seems to be a unique situation, and please keep me posted, enjoy, frank

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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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