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I live in Crow City, USA (AKA Monterey, California).

I can't tell one crow from another without their perching right next to me on a bust of Portola. They seem to all be clones of each other, as far as I can tell (and I'm sure that's true of most non-ornithologist humans). Yet crows can differentiate humans one from another.

This (presumably) does not prove that crows, clever as they are, are more intelligent than humans, but does it indicate that they are more interested in us than we are of them? If so, why? Or what is the reason for this gap in observation skills?

Some humans are birdwatchers, but it seems all crows are people watchers.

UPDATE

This corroborating link (Friend or Foe? Crows Never Forget a Face, It Seems from The New York Times, Aug 25, 2008) was provided by a cat who had a hard time adding it for some reason.

An article published by the National Wildlife Society on November 7, 2012 describes that study, as well as results from other research. It goes into more details explaining that crows and other birds do recognize us, and potential reasons why. It also has links to more information about crows and other birds in general.

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    Can you substantiate your claim that crows can tell humans apart, let alone that all crows spend any noteworthy amount of time watching people? – nhinkle Apr 4 '16 at 22:03
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    According to The Audobon Society, crows can tell us apart. – Sue Saddest Farewell TGO GL Apr 5 '16 at 0:03
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    You find that even in human races when there is a cross-race recognition deficit, and it can be fixed easily through training and awareness. Same for you: if your survival depended from distinguishing one crow good to eat from one "poisonous" crow you would find that you wouldnt look at them and process "which bird is that? its a crow" but you would automatically do something more like "which crow is that? a good one" while you are paying much more attention to the characteristics of the single bird without realizing it. Crows survival depends on paying attention to whats around them. – Erik vanDoren Apr 5 '16 at 14:12
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    Just as a sidenote, there has been evidence that prairie dogs do the same thing. Whenever Field Researcher A walks by, they give a specific bark; but when Field Researcher B walks by, the bark is different. – cobaltduck Apr 5 '16 at 16:19
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    @cobaltduck: It would be interesting (and perhaps funny - to others) what "nicknames" these critters assign us. – B. Clay Shannon Apr 5 '16 at 16:23
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I suspect this mostly is a result of need, and antipathy.

First of all I think your premise that humans can't identify individual animals within a breed or species is false. People who spend significant time with animals like pet owners, farmers, and naturalists can differentiate between "their" animals and new animals much easier than people who aren't familiar with these animals. People can not only recognize "their" animals but can tell when "their" animals' behavior changes. This goes to show that when people spend time with an animal they have the same ability that you feel the crows demonstrate.

You have to realize that crows spend inordinate amounts of time watching people. Since they spend so much more time watching us then we do watching them it is only natural that they recognize us better than we recognize them. Furthermore, it is an essential survival trait for a crow to recognize which humans are dangerous and which humans are benevolent. Humans have this ability too. With the proper training people can tell the difference between a gopher snake, a rattlesnake, and a king snake. The researchers trained the crows that one mask was dangerous, and the crows reaction demonstrated that they can be trained. Also notice in the study it was the mask the birds keyed on not the secondary traits like gait, size, clothing, etc. This means that the birds keyed in on the important difference, the mask, and not the individual in this case. This is like the ability for humans to distinguish a king snake from a coral snake. In our case it isn't all snakes that are dangerous, just the coral snake. In the crows' case it isn't all humans just the humans wearing a specific mask.

Finally, crows have a tactical advantage over us because they have the high ground. It is much easier to observe individuals and figure out patterns when you're looking down on your subject compared to when you are observing from down below. This is doubly true when you can observe your subject from behind foliage in a tree.

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    +1 I'll bet if any of us had several crows who invaded our house repeatedly, we would, somehow, be able to distinguish those crows among a population. This is what the crows in the study did. – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Apr 5 '16 at 1:28
  • This is an excellent answer! It answers the question and teaches us more at the same time. There's a lot of interesting stuff in here! – Sue Saddest Farewell TGO GL Apr 16 '16 at 15:02
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I support the accepted answer but wanted to add an potentially helpful anecdote.

When I joined the Marine Corps as a young man some 20 years ago - the first thing they did was give us a uniform and shave our heads. For the first several weeks after that, I struggled to identify one individual from another - as hair is a key element that we as humans use in recognition.

However, my brain appeared to adopt other ways of identifying individuals and I soon had little difficulty (though our heads were still shorn). I suspect crows just look for different things than feather color (beaks, size, sound, feet, etc.).

Likely if we were put in a building full of crows and identification of them held significant importance to us, we would soon find ways to distinguish one from another as well.

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    Thanks, interesting anecdote. Some people think beards make all men look alike ("you're hiding your face!"). – B. Clay Shannon Apr 14 '16 at 20:05
  • I agree. We always joked about how all boot camp pictures looked the same. – Erik Apr 14 '16 at 20:49
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Another two reasons The first is that humans vary much more than crows do - in behavior and in color (clothing) so they are easier to tell apart.

The second is that crows (and birds generally) have much more to gain from distinguishing between different humans than humans have from distinguishing crows. Humans are both a source of resources/benefits for many animals and a source of danger or disadvantage and our varying behavior means that some are of more benefit or disadvantage than others, for instance some people might regard them as pests and try to do away with them, while others might like them and want to feed them, yet others could be indifferent but carelessly leaving food in their wake.

In Australia the Australian Magpie (not to be confused with other types of Magpie) are, like crows intelligent birds. They are aggressive nest guards - in spring (swooping season) they attack people violently and many Australians have been injured by them. I have seen that at my brothers house they will not 'swoop' him or his wife, while any unrecognized person may be attacked in the street and the postman definitely will be attacked. I would say the difference in those behaviors is because my brother feeds them, the postie rides a noisy motorbike and strangers are to be treated with caution.

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    I like crows but they seem pretty wary; for some reason many do not seem to like them much, I don't know why - is is their color? Their voice? Edgar Allan Poe? – B. Clay Shannon May 19 '16 at 21:05
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Good answers/anecdotes thus far. I find this interesting and asked an avian specialist about this.

In addition to most of what has already been said (that crows have more time, necessity, and better vantage points to observe us), they emphasized a point Erik briefly touched on - their sneakiness:

Crows are not easy to differentiate, even if we do watch them. If you spend time watching pidgins like crows do watching us, you as a human will become very good at differentiating between the pidgins. Crows however will be more difficult to differentiate between, especially if they aren't trying to become known to you. This has to do with their physique, cleverness at being covert, and of course their flight makes it easier for them to both watch as well as evade us.

  • As I post this I realize I may look like a specialist based on my username & photo. I assure you I'm no specialist. Just an observant student ;) – cr0 Apr 14 '16 at 20:41
  • My nom de plume/guerre when writing fiction is Blackbird Crow Raven, but I'm no "specialist" in this field, either. I wonder: is an "avian specialist" or ornithologist also called a bird-brain? – B. Clay Shannon Apr 14 '16 at 20:44
  • Good one! This person is more a vet than researcher. And I hope neither would be a bird-brain (unless it's a crow brain that is!) – cr0 Apr 14 '16 at 20:49

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