I understand that animals are naturally scared of humans because we basically slaughtered every living thing we found in our way for millennia. How long does it take for them to genetically 'forget' we are a threat?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ What's your evidence that an individual animal who has never encountered humans before is "scared" of humans more than other species? $\endgroup$
    – MCM
    Sep 25, 2013 at 20:47
  • $\begingroup$ @MCM I am not really sure I understand? I was referring to animals that have encountered humans before. I am mostly curious about the recent phenomenon of urban birds who have co-existed alongside with humans for a few decades now, and that for the most part these humans presented no threat to them. It seems to me that even after years of co-existence they still prefer keeping a safe distance from us humans. $\endgroup$ Sep 25, 2013 at 20:59
  • $\begingroup$ @IsopycnalOscillation, if they have seen humans before then their natural fear response is justified. In the city I live, I've noticed that some children are particularly cruel to birds constantly chasing them away. $\endgroup$
    – Kenshin
    Sep 26, 2013 at 0:28
  • $\begingroup$ I don't follow the premise of the question. Urban birds are a lot less scared of humans than wild birds. $\endgroup$
    – Abulafia
    Dec 13, 2014 at 7:25
  • $\begingroup$ a) Plenty of birds in the city will get very close to humans, relative to countryside birds (if you've ever been to Trafalgar square in London you will know how close birds are willing to get, try getting that close to a pheasant in a field!). b) It may be that "scaredness" (let's go with timidness) is not a genetic trait - or has a very large environmental component (i.e. largely determined by previous experience of human). $\endgroup$
    – rg255
    Dec 17, 2014 at 9:58

1 Answer 1


Perhaps counter-intuitively, fear of humans is often a learned behaviour. There are accounts, such as one made by Charles Darwin following his visit to the Galapagos islands;

In Charles Island, which had then been colonized about six years, I saw a boy sitting by a well with a switch in his hand, with which he killed the doves and finches as they came to drink. He had already procured a little heap of them for his dinner, and he said that he had constantly been in the habit of waiting by this well for the same purpose. It would appear that the birds of this archipelago, not having as yet learnt that man is a more dangerous animal than the tortoise or the Amblyrhynchus, disregard him, in the same manner as in England shy birds, such as magpies, disregard the cows and horses grazing in our fields.

From "The Voyage of the Beagle" - http://www.ling.upenn.edu/courses/hum100/Beagle17.html

Birds born and bred in proximity to humans will have learned that we are actually to be avoided.

Ducks and swans, for instance, (and this is quite anecdotal) live in very close proximity to a lot of humans in cities, and feel confident walking picking up food. However if you try to get close to one they are very quick to get out of the way. The only exceptions to this are learned behaviours, such as when someone stands and feeds them.

In the wild animals may be cautious of humans if we are much bigger than them, but if they have no experience at all of human contact they may just ignore them. This quite often happens with film crews in Antarctica, as in the below image from the BBC's Frozen Planet series.

enter image description here

  • $\begingroup$ I guess I am biased because I would never hurt an animal. There may as well be other people out there doing just that - therefore perpetuating their fear of us. It's just so sad, when I go to the local creek, I would love to see more birds, I know they are there because I can hear them... $\endgroup$ Sep 26, 2013 at 17:32
  • $\begingroup$ @IsopycnalOscillation I would guess that this is much beyond animal cruelty and probably goes as deep as innate behaviour. We hunted ducks and swans for food, ones that were innately fearful of humans survived and propagated and the next generation were predisposed to fear humans a bit more. Rinse and repeat for thousands of years. This would only be compounded by learned behaviour. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Dec 17, 2014 at 15:39
  • $\begingroup$ @GoodGravy Great point. $\endgroup$ Dec 17, 2014 at 18:00

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .