June 7, 2013 — Researchers from the Seoul National University found that wild birds appear to "think faster" when humans, and possibly predators in general, are directly looking at them.
"We started this study from our experience" says Dr. Sang-im Lee, the leader of magpie research team and the first author of the paper. "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!"
The finding that animals notice the gaze of humans is not new. Usually animals use gaze of the conspecifics in social contexts and therefore pet animals pay attention to the gaze of humans -- their social mates. Also in the case of predator and prey interactions it is well known that animals such like birds, lizards or deer move away or escape from humans at larger distances when people look directly at them. In these situations it was believed that animals react at larger distance and sooner because the gaze is an indicator to the prey that the predator "wants to catch it." Therefore, when a prey notices the gaze of a predator it moves away from the predator in order to increase safety. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that magpies on the campus of the Seoul National University also flew away at larger distances when humans were directly looking at them.