Very recently, an interesting discovery was made by researchers studying Antarctic birds. The findings have revealed that some birds are capable of possessing high cognitive and memory abilities. Even though birds like crows and pigeons, when living with humans for years, are known to recognize human friends and foes, the revelation of the cognitive ability of the Antarctic skua is a much more interesting discovery, as explained below.
The Baffling Discovery
In the Winter of 2014-2015, researchers from the Korea Polar Research Institute, working in the frozen continent of Antarctica, were busy visiting the nests of a group of Antarctic birds, the brown skuas, to learn more about the habits and habitats of these birds. During their work, which involved weekly visitations to the skua nests to monitor the growth of the eggs and chicks, the scientists made an observation that was in the beginning quite baffling. They understood that the birds weren’t too happy about the humans poking into their nests on a weekly basis, and thus started attacking approaching humans. However, it was seen that they were doing so in a selective manner. It appeared as if the birds were attacking only those who had previously poked at their nests, while others who had not were spared. Even though birds like crows and pigeons who have lived in human-based environments and have evolved around humans have been previously known to recognize human faces, it was quite unexpected that an Antarctic bird, with very little exposure to humans, would be able to learn to memorize human facial details within just 3 or 4 visits by a human so as to be able to attack only the previously identified individuals on their subsequent visitations to their nests.
The Research In The Field
To further delve into the matter, the researchers decided to conduct some social experiments on these birds. Two researchers would together visit the nests of these birds, wherein one of them had previously poked the nests of the skuas and the other was relatively “innocent”, and had not given the skuas any reason to complain about. The pair of researchers would then approach the skua nests until reaching the position where the birds started getting conscious about their presence and became ready to attack. Then the pair split, with each individual moving in an opposite direction. What followed was really enthralling. The skuas only went after the researcher who had previously intruded into their nests, while the "neutral" researcher was completely ignored. The same results were obtained even when both the researchers wore identical clothing. The possibility that individual human body odor was used to recognize the intruder from the non-intruders was also ruled out, as the strong winds in the region would have quickly swept away any traces of body scent. Therefore, the only possibility left was that the birds recognized individuals based on human facial features, and possibly also body postures as well.
What Can Be Concluded From This Study?
These studies with Brown skuas reveal the high level of cognitive abilities possessed by these birds. Even though these birds are not naturally evolved to recognize humans as friends or enemies, their excellent eyesight and memory endows them with the amazing capability of discriminating between people they have seen only a few times earlier. Other species in the Antarctic, like the sheathbills and Antarctic terns, however, have been not known to exhibit such high cognitive abilities. It could be that it is the predatory nature of the skuas that necessitates that they possess such high cognitive skills, which they may use to hunt down their prey in the harsh, cold, desert habitats of the frozen southern continent. The birds are also known to rob other birds like gulls and terns of their fish, and steal the milk of nursing elephant seals. Hence their message is sent out clearly: Never mess with the skuas!