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Magpies "Think Faster" When People Look at Them

Update Date: Jun 07, 2013 02:31 PM EDT

Magpies, one of the few animal species able to recognize itself in the mirror, "think faster" when humans gaze at them, according to Korean scientists.

Researchers from Seoul National University found that these wild birds made quicker decisions when humans look directly at them.

"We started this study from our experience" lead researcher Dr. Sang-im Lee said in a news release. "For a long time we had this impression that somehow magpies know that we are watching them because they often fly away from us when we observe them. But when we don't observe them, we can pass them pretty close-by but they don't fly away!"

It's been long known that animals notice the gaze of humans.  Researchers explain that animals use gaze of the conspecifics in social contexts.  This is why pet animals pay attention to the gaze of humans and their social mates. Previous studies have also found that animals like birds, lizards or deer move away or escape from humans at larger distances when people look directly at them.  Researchers said this might be because animals judge gaze as an indicator that a predator wants to catch it.

Researchers found that magpies on Korean college campuses flew away at larger distances when humans look directly at them. However, researchers said that this is not the most important finding of the study.

Researchers found that when people approached foraging magpies and looked directly at them, the birds made the decisions faster regardless of whether the final decision was to return to foraging or to fly away and whether the stress or danger perceived by a magpie was low or high.  

However, when people did not look at the magpies, the birds were slower at deciding whether to escape or keep foraging,

Researchers said that the findings suggest that birds are able to extract more information for their quick decisions from people's faces and gaze direction regardless of what kind of information they get.

The findings are published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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