It’s not quite “The Birds,” but South Korean researchers say they’ve determined that a species of avian living in the Antarctic can recognize individual humans — and target those they deem a threat while leaving bystanders unscathed.
The species of bright bird in question is the Antarctic skua, which lives on the Antarctic Peninsula and subantarctic islands in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans.
According to the authors of a study published in the journal Animal Cognition, breeding pairs correctly identified and targeted a human who had previously approached their nest and handled eggs and young birds. Meanwhile, they ignored a “neutral” human who hadn’t been seen before.
“We found that, as nest visits were repeated, the skua parents responded at further distances and were more likely to attack the nest intruder,” the researchers wrote.
In fact, they say, seven out of seven breeding pairs reacted in the same way.
Of course, animals recognizing specific humans isn’t unprecedented. Dogs, especially, recognize their owners, and there are plenty of stories of wild animals forming bonds with people.
And it isn’t the first time such research has suggested that birds can recognize individual humans. For instance, a 2012 study showed that trained pigeons could distinguish one human from another, according to Science Daily.
But the research does seem to bolster the idea that the birds’ “pre-existing high intelligence” allowed them to develop the ability to discern individuals, rather than a competing theory that wild animals develop such abilities as the result of repeated exposure to humans.
The birds in the study have historically received little exposure to humans, the researchers said.