On a blustery overcast morning this past April, Kaeli Swift walked across the campus of the University of Washington toting a weathered, purple-and-white plastic shopping bag. This bag, if found by some unsuspecting student or grounds person, would almost certainly trigger a campuswide panic. Inside Swift had stowed a rubber mask of a grotesque, exaggerated male face—large ears, bulbous nose, silver-whiskered soul patch—a guise that would not look out of place in a 1980s horror film. Also inside: a corpse. That the corpse was only that of a bird hardly made the tattered bag’s combined payload any less creepy.
She tromped through the wet grass in calf-high Sorel snow boots and made her way to the university’s Center for Urban Horticulture, where she’s a teaching assistant for an undergraduate natural history class. Near the Dumpsters and trash cans parked behind the center, Swift found a perfect spot for what she was about to do: perform a ritual that, depending how you look at it, is a couple of years old or a couple million.
Swift, a PhD candidate, is a member of UW’s nationally acclaimed Avian Conservation Lab. If you’ve heard or read a news story in the last decade about Corvus brachyrhynchos—aka, the American crow—and what science has to say about its confounding habits and aptitude, there’s a good chance it was thanks to the work conducted by the lab, led by a man named John Marzluff. The UW professor and wildlife biologist is the author of numerous popular books on the subject. In 2008, Marzluff and his fellow researchers made national headlines when they tested a hypothesis—that crows recognize individual human faces—by donning Dick Cheney masks. That led to another revelation: Crows teach other crows to detest specific people (and sometimes attack them).
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