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Robins Pay Attention To Which Way You’re Looking When Stealing From You

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In a week where gaze-following seems to be the hot topic, there being studies in both primates and dogs, another study took a rather different approach to looking at gaze-following.

The Wild North Island robin

Wild North Island robins are unusual in that they live on an isolated island and as a result are unafraid of humans and other mammals. This is useful from the point of view of researchers, as it means that experimenters can interact with them easily. Indeed, these robins will even try to steal food from humans like seagulls or crows do.

Researchers wanted to see whether these sneaky robins would pay attention to where humans were looking when trying to steal from them. If robins do pay attention to where a person is looking, then we would expect them to steal food from people who are either looking or facing the other direction.

A robin approaches the female experimenter who holds a cloth in front of her face to steal the mealworm from in front of her

First an experimenter called over a bird (an animal behaviourists’ dream) to where they sat with another experimenter. These experimenters were both female and similarly dressed so that the bird wouldn’t preferentially steal from one based on the way they looked. In front of each of these experimenters was a tray containing a mealworm (a tasty treat for a robin). Each experimenter was either facing or gazing in a particular direction, as shown in the picture below. The researchers then looked to see who the bird would steal from.

The image above shows the various positions the experimenters adopted. The first three show: a) one experimenter facing the mealworm and one facing the other direction; b) both experimenters facing the same direction, towards one mealworm and c) both experimenters facing the same direction but one with her head tuned away. In another condition (shown in d)) both experimenters faced the same direction, but one looked right at the mealworm while one looked away. If this hadn’t freaked out the robins enough already, the researchers also had a condition (e)) where one experimenter held a cloth over her face while the other experimenter held a cloth over her chest and f) where one experimenter held a cloth over her eyes and the other held a cloth over her mouth.

Remarkably, the robins chose the mealworm that wasn’t being looked at by the experimenter in all conditions except for one, where the experimenter had her face at a 90 degree angle away from the food (condition c).

As these are birds that have regular contact with humans, it’s hard to say whether these impressive abilities come from their experience interacting with people or whether they are skills that are used in a more natural environment that they then transfer to this situation.

 

Photo Credits

Robin: Angrysunbird

Photo of experiment and diagram: taken from Garland et al. (2014)

Reference

Garland, A., Low, J., Armstrong, N., & Burns, K. C. (2014). Wild robins (Petroica longipes) respond to human gaze. Animal cognition, online first. DOI: DOI 10.1007/s10071-014-0747-y

Felicity Muth About the Author: Felicity Muth is an early-career researcher with a PhD in animal cognition. Follow on Twitter @notbadscience.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. jonathanseer 5:59 pm 05/12/2014

    Anybody who has pet birds could have told you this.

    I learned a while ago the best way to capture accidentally escaped Chuckars and Bobwhites was to walk slowly in their direction while looking away from them, until I was close enough to get them with the net.

    By doing that I was able to get within a few feet of them.

    Before I’d try to get them while watching them to see for signs of flight, and I couldn’t get within 20 feet.

    Oh when I say accidentally escape, I mean they were startled by something and flew out the door of their keep when it opened.

    The first few times that happened, I figured the birds were gone for good, only to find out they had returned from wherever they flew off too, back to somewhere in my yard.

    That they did so even though I have dogs that will kill them in a heartbeat tells you how bad they wanted back into the keep.

    Recently one I barely was able to save one bobwhite who upon seeing me walk outside burst out from where she was hiding flying directly in my direction with a couple dogs in pursuit.LOL

    Link to this
  2. 2. Jerzy v. 3.0. 6:23 am 05/16/2014

    It is common in wild birds. Just check yourself with a crow or whatever common bird, that they are more afraid if you look directly at them.

    If you approach a bird sitting on the nest, it will preferentially wait until you don’t look directly at it, and then sneak off the nest incospiciously.

    BTW, field of vision of a bird is wider than a human, so a robin might treat a person facing 90o to the side as still watching it. Assuming that birds mostly deal with other birds.

    Link to this
  3. 3. FerezNallaseth 9:38 pm 05/16/2014

    Adaptation! We had an even more drastic problem in the open playgrounds of St. Mary’s High School in Mumbai, India. Kites would time a swoop to enable them to steal a sandwich right out of your hands – while you were about to eat it!

    Link to this
  4. 4. evelyn haskins 7:30 pm 05/19/2014

    Ah, Ferez,

    In Australia we have identical problems with Kookaburras.

    Crafty things, they wait behind you and watch for the hand holding the food to be held in a position where they can snaffle it without touching the holder!

    Link to this

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