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Research: Mockingbirds Quickly Recognize Individual Faces in a Crowd

Studies carried out on the campus of Florida’s University of Gainesville (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: May, 2009) have established that, after a mere 60 seconds of exposure, mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) can identify specific people from among thousands of passers-by.

Identifying a Threat

mockingbirdTo test the birds’ abilities, researchers gently touched mockingbird nests on 4 successive days, and then walked quickly away.  By the third day, the resident mockingbirds would leave the nest upon sighting the researcher approach, even if the person dressed differently and used an alternate route to the nest.  The enraged birds often attacked the intruders with pecks to the head before they could reach the nest.

When people “not known” to the mockingbirds approached, the birds would freeze and not fly off until the last possible moment.  Strangers who merely walked close to the nests were not attacked, yet the “annoying” researchers were, even as time went on…this despite the fact that the nests were located along walkways routinely used by the campus’ 51,000+ students!

Survival Value

Owners of parrots, mynas and toucans have often commented on their pets’ abilities to discriminate among different people, but this is the first evidence of just how quickly some birds can learn and profit from new information.  This facility for survival may help explain the mockingbird’s unprecedented range expansion in recent years.  Forty years ago they were sporadic summer visitors to New York City suburbs, but are now resident in the heart of Manhattan and points north year-round.

Mockingbirds in Captivity

Mockingbirds are much-favored as pets in parts of Puerto Rico, where their responsiveness is said to lead to extraordinarily strong relationships with their owners.  Those I have worked with as a wildlife rehabilitator exhibited an amazing degree of intelligence and mimicry abilities that I still find difficult to believe.

Further Reading

Not to be outdone, crows and ravens are also quite capable learners. While in Japan I came across some fascinating evidence of tool use (cars, no less!) by carrion crows.  Please see the following articles for a variety of stories documenting just how resourceful some birds can be:

Japan‘s Intelligent Carrion Crows

Do Parrots Recognize Human Faces?

Ravens at Work – the World’s Smartest Birds?



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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