Academic journal article Science and Children

From a Bird's Eye

Academic journal article Science and Children

From a Bird's Eye

Article excerpt

Birds can tell if you are watching them--because they are watching you.

In humans, the eyes are said to be the "window to the soul," conveying much about a person's emotions and intentions. New research demonstrates for the first time that birds also respond to a human's gaze.

Predators tend to look at their prey when they attack, so direct eye-gaze can predict imminent danger. Julia Carter, a doctoral student at the University of Bristol, and her colleagues, set up experiments that showed starlings will keep away from their food dish if a human is looking at it. However, if the person is just as close, but their eyes are turned away, the birds resumed feeding earlier and consumed more food overall.

Carter said, "This is a great example of how animals can pick up on very subtle signals and use them to their own advantage."

Wild starlings are highly social and will quickly join others at a productive foraging patch. This leads to highly competitive foraging situations. An individual starling that assesses a relatively low predation risk and responds by returning more quickly to a foraging patch (as in the study) will gain valuable feeding time before others join the patch.

Responses to obvious indicators of risk--a predator looming overhead or the fleeing of other animals--are well documented, but Carter argued that a predator's head orientation and eyegaze direction are more subtle indicators of risk and are useful since many predators orient their head and eyes toward their prey as they attack. …

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