They Never Forget a Face

Illustration by Anastasia Saltykova

There was an old belief that when crows saw a human’s face, the face would imprint on the brain of the crow, and then the crow would remember that face for the rest of their life. If the memory was pleasant, the crow would have pleasant feelings for the person and if the memory was unpleasant, the belief was the crow would harass the person by making loud cawing sounds at the person if the person was ever seen again.  

Now researchers are saying there is some truth to this old adage. In fact, that most birds, not just crows respond to a familiar person’s face and voice if they see the face and hear the voice often.

A research team from the University of Lincoln conducted a study on pigeons. The team trained a small group of pigeons to recognize the difference between photographs of familiar and unfamiliar objects. Then the study team took the pigeons one step further. These pigeons, along with a control group, were then shown photographs of pairs of human faces. One face was of a person familiar to the birds, and the other was of someone they had not seen before.

Photo by Peruphotart

The experimental group birds were able to recognize and classify the familiar people using only their faces. The birds without prior training failed. The results showed that pigeons can tell the difference between the familiar and unfamiliar faces of people and are able to do this by solely using facial characteristics.

In other observations, researchers have documented other wild birds responding to both facial and voice recognition when a familiar person is in the yard or filling the feeders, or bird baths. So what do these findings mean to us other than to try not to upset a crow?  

In all seriousness, we can actually communicate with our bird friends in our yards if they are regular visitors. What do the birds like? Generally speaking, they are attracted to people who have a soft tone of voice. They scare easily, so loud noises might frighten them away and the odds of making friends are slim.


The bird needs to be able to see you. Let the bird see your face as you talk gently. They are watching. Let them hear and see you. Sit in the yard and be still so they know you are not a threat. If you have time, on a warm day, throw some seed out while you are sitting still in the yard. They will come much closer. Let them know you are the one who is the seed person by putting the seed gently down and being very still.

When you have their trust and the birds are closer you can talk to them quietly. You can tell if they are listening. They will turn their heads slightly and look at you at a sidewise glance. When birds look at you, acknowledge that you see them. They really like that. Once the birds get used to the conversation, they will start talking back to you. It’s really fun! They actually chirp and wait for you to say something and then they will chirp again.  And before you know it, you have a conversation going back and forth. Birds are smart and can be great friends to humans even if they live in the wild. Remember it takes a friend to make a friend. So be a friend to the birds in your yard.