May 12, 2014 | 4
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.
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 of experiment and diagram: taken from Garland et al. (2014)
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