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John M. Marzluff, a wildlife biologist at the University of Washington, has studied crows and ravens for more than 20 years and has long wondered if the birds could identify individual researchers.
To test the birds’ recognition of faces separately from that of clothing, gait and other individual human characteristics, Dr. Marzluff and two students wore rubber masks. He designated a caveman mask as “dangerous” and, in a deliberate gesture of civic generosity, a Dick Cheney mask as “neutral.” Researchers in the dangerous mask then trapped and banded seven crows on the university’s campus in Seattle.
n the months that followed, the researchers and volunteers donned the masks on campus, this time walking prescribed routes and not bothering crows.
The crows had not forgotten. They scolded people in the dangerous mask significantly more than they did before they were trapped, even when the mask was disguised with a hat or worn upside down. The neutral mask provoked little reaction. The effect has not only persisted, but also multiplied over the past two years.
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.
"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."