Scientists have known for many years that birds such as crows, mockingbirds and magpies can recognise individual people since these birds reside in human-populated areas. Now, a team of South Korean scientists has found that even birds living in remote areas, such as the brown skuas in Antarctica, have this ability as well.
“I had to defend myself against the skuas’ attack,” comments Yeong-Deok Han, a Ph.D. student at Inha University in South Korea. “When I was with other researchers, the birds flew over me and tried to hit me. Even when I changed my field clothes, they followed me. The birds seemed to know me no matter what I wear.”
To confirm that these Antarctic birds can recognise an individual, the team conducted several experiments. Their study, published in the journal Animal Cognition on March 3, involved checking the birds’ nests once a week to monitor their breeding status.
Initially, the skuas attacked the researchers who invaded their nesting grounds. When several researchers, including those two intruders and another who have never accessed the nests approached the nests, all of the seven birds only attacked those who’ve intruded before. The researcher that has never been to the nest was left alone.
This is not the only time that brown skuas have shown their intelligence. Apparently, these Antarctic birds steal food from other birds and even the breastmilk of elephant seals, each with different methods that enhance their stealing strategy over time.
“It is amazing that brown skuas, which evolved and lived in human-free habitats, recognised individual humans just after three or four visits. It seems that they have very high levels of cognitive abilities,” adds lead researcher Won Young Lee, who is also a senior researcher from Korea Polar Research Institute. “Since this area has been inhabited by humans only after the Antarctic research stations were installed, we think that the skuas could acquire the discriminatory abilities during a short-term period of living near humans.”