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Bird can “read” human gaze

April 2, 2009
Courtesy Cell Press
and World Science staff

A bird whose eyes look rather like hu­man eyes does an ex­cel­lent job of read­ing our gaze and com­mu­nica­tive ges­tures in­volv­ing eyes, a study has found.

Jack­daws, which are re­lat­ed to crows and ravens, “seem to rec­og­nize the eye’s role in vis­u­al per­cep­tion, or at the very least they are ex­tremely sen­si­tive to the way that hu­man eyes are ori­ent­ed,” said Au­guste von Bay­ern of the Uni­ver­s­ity of Ox­ford and one of the re­search­ers.

Jackdaws, whose eyes look much like hu­man eyes, can read our gaze and com­mu­nica­tive ges­tures in­volv­ing eye move­ments, a study has found. (Image cour­tesy John Has­lam; li­censed under Crea­tive Com­mons At­tri­bu­tion 2.0 li­cense)


When pre­sented with a pre­ferred food, hand-raised jack­daws took sig­nif­i­cantly long­er to re­trieve the re­ward when a per­son was di­rect­ing his eyes to­wards the food than when he was look­ing away, ac­cord­ing to the re­search team led by Na­than Em­ery of the Uni­ver­s­ity of Cam­bridge and Queen Mary Uni­ver­s­ity of Lon­don. The birds hes­i­tat­ed only when the per­son in ques­tion was un­fa­mil­iar and thus po­ten­tially threat­en­ing.

The birds were al­so found to be able to in­ter­pret hu­man com­mu­nica­tive ges­tures, such as gaze al­terna­t­ion and point­ing, to help them find hid­den food, they found. The birds did­n’t make use of stat­ic cues, in­clud­ing eye gaze or head ori­enta­t­ion, in that con­text.

Un­like most birds, jack­daws’ eyes have a dark pu­pil sur­rounded by a silvery white ar­ea, the iris. The re­search­ers said they be­lieve jack­daws are probably sen­si­tive to hu­man eyes be­cause, as in hu­mans, eyes are an im­por­tant means of com­mu­nica­t­ion for them. The hand-raised birds ex­am­ined in the study may be bet­ter than wild jack­daws at at­tend­ing to hu­man gaze and re­spond­ing to the ges­tures of the peo­ple who have raised them.

The find­ings are par­tic­u­larly nota­ble giv­en that most oth­er spe­cies in­ves­t­i­gated so far, in­clud­ing our clos­est rel­a­tives the chim­pan­zee and “man’s best friend,” the dog, are not par­tic­u­larly sen­si­tive to eye ori­enta­t­ion and eye gaze, von Bay­ern said. Rath­er, she con­tin­ued, chimps and dogs seem to rely on oth­er cues such as head or body ori­enta­t­ion in de­ter­min­ing the look­ing di­rec­tion of oth­ers and do not ap­pear to ap­pre­ci­ate the eyes as the vis­u­al or­gans.

“We may have un­der­es­ti­mated the psy­cho­log­i­cal realms of birds,” von Bay­ern said. “Jack­daws, amongst many oth­er birds, form pair bonds for life and need to closely co­or­di­nate and col­la­bo­rate with their part­ner, which re­quires an ef­fi­cient way of com­mu­ni­cat­ing and sen­si­ti­vity to their part­ner’s per­spec­tive.” The study is re­ported on­line April 2 in the re­search jour­nal Cur­rent Bi­ol­o­gy.


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A bird whose eyes look much like human eyes does an excellent job of reading our gaze and communicative gestures involving eye movements, a study has found. Jackdaws, which are related to crows and ravens, “seem to recognize the eye’s role in visual perception, or at the very least they are extremely sensitive to the way that human eyes are oriented,” said Auguste von Bayern of the University of Oxford and one of the researchers. When presented with a preferred food, hand-raised jackdaws took significantly longer to retrieve the reward when a person was directing his eyes towards the food than when he was looking away, according to the research team led by Nathan Emery of the University of Cambridge and Queen Mary University of London. The birds hesitated only when the person in question was unfamiliar and thus potentially threatening. The birds were also found to be able to interpret human communicative gestures, such as gaze alternation and pointing, to help them find hidden food, they found. The birds didn’t make use of static cues, including eye gaze or head orientation, in that context. Unlike most birds, jackdaws’ eyes have a dark pupil surrounded by a silvery white area, the iris. The researchers said they believe jackdaws are probably sensitive to human eyes because, as in humans, eyes are an important means of communication for them. The hand-raised birds examined in the study may be better than wild jackdaws at attending to human gaze and responding to the gestures of the people who have raised them. The findings are particularly notable given that most other species investigated so far, including our closest relatives the chimpanzee and “man’s best friend,” the dog, are not particularly sensitive to eye orientation and eye gaze, von Bayern said. Rather, she continued, chimps and dogs seem to rely on other cues such as head or body orientation in determining the looking direction of others and do not appear to appreciate the eyes as the visual organs. “We may have underestimated the psychological realms of birds,” von Bayern said. “Jackdaws, amongst many other birds, form pair bonds for life and need to closely coordinate and collaborate with their partner, which requires an efficient way of communicating and sensitivity to their partner’s perspective.” The study is reported online April 2 in the research journal Current Biology.