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Weekly bird news roundup (July 1)

Here are some of the top stories from this week.

Study finds crows exhibit gang-like behavior

Although a flock of crows is called a murder, a better name would actually be a gang.

According to the Seattle Times, scientists found that crows remember the faces of humans who cause ruckus for a long time and even pass the grudges down to their young.

Professor John Marzluff found this by donning a scary caveman mask and disrupting the birds in a way that had them bringing their buddies to swoop down at him. Then, after five years of not seeing the masked intruder, they still divebombed anyone wearing the mask.

Marzluff’s research showed that these birds passed their grudges down to their young, and shared it with other crows nearby. The birds learned by being caught, by watching another bird get caught, or by communicating with parents or peers. And the number of birds involved in the scolding has increased year after year.

If they keep tormenting the birds with these masks, there’s a good possibility the legend of the caveman will remain in the crow’s community for years to come.

Plan for crime-fighting vultures falls through

In truly bizarre bird news, a plan to train vultures to find missing corpses has been scrapped after trainers admitted the vultures preferred to walk, couldn’t tell the difference between animals and humans and couldn’t stop fighting with each other, according to The Independent.

It’s no surprise that the plan, envisioned by a German police commissioner after watching a film on American turkey vultures, didn’t come to fruition.

German Alonso, another of the bird park’s vulture trainers, conceded that Sherlock not only had difficulty in distinguishing between human corpses and dead animals, but was also too frightened to leave the surroundings of the bird park. “The bird is naturally anxious and he would either hide in the woods or bolt,” he said.

Unlike dogs, vultures are moody creatures who act selfishly. When they’re not anxiously avoiding going out into the field, they’re fighting with each other non-stop.

While the plan would have been charming and entertaining had it actually worked, this goes on the list of failed attempts to make birds do our bidding.

Humans aren’t the only ones with complex language

We knew that animals could string together what appears to be sentences, but a new study found that birds use grammar similar to the way humans do.

According to io9.com, Bengalese finches purportedly order specific units to make coherent ideas. When a bird’s song is remixed and sounded unfamiliar, the birds had a negative reaction.

What we’re specifically talking about here is syntax, the idea that individual units of meaning need to be arranged in a certain way for the sentence as a whole to make sense. Syntax is why “man bites dog” means something completely different from “dog bites man” to an English speaker, and it’s why “bites man dog” or dog man bites” are just gibberish. Kyoto University researcher Kentaro Abe has now been able to demonstrate that Bengal finches demonstrate similar syntactical awareness.

This is just further evidence that the term “bird brain” should be taken as a compliment.

Timothy Martinez Jr. is a writer and freelance journalist. His work has been published in The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Remapping Debate in New York City and other publications. He’s been a bird lover since he was young and currently lives in New Orleans, L.A.