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Could Crows Have Helped Bring Down Bin Laden?

We’ve all heard now about how a team of U.S. Navy Seals took down Osama bin Laden. But the decade-long hunt for the terrorist leader also got some help from an unlikely partner connected to the University of Washington.

John Marzluff: “One of the experimental branches of research that was used to try to find him was to have crows or ravens of the local area trained to identify his face.”

John Marzluff is a Wildlife Sciences Professor at the UW.  A few years ago, the military contracted Marzluff to see if crows or ravens in Afghanistan could help find bin Laden.

Marzluff and his UW team have studied the birds’ ability to recognize human faces.

In their experiments, they wore caveman masks when they captured and tagged crows on campus. The birds apparently viewed that as hostile activity.

Later, when the researchers wore the masks again, the birds would flock and harass them. When they took off the masks, the birds left them alone.

Even after several years, Marzluff says the crows still cause a commotion when he wears the caveman mask on campus.

John Marzluff: “So, they have a long term memory, very acute discrimination abilities, and if a group of crows knew bin Laden as an enemy, they would certainly indicate his presence when they next saw him.”

Marzluff says his funding from the U.S. military ended a few years ago.

He’s not sure whether crows or ravens eventually played a direct role in the hunt for bin Laden. But Marzluff says the military was also interested in using the research for other search-and-rescue efforts.