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On my daily walks I frequently see individual or small groups of cattle egrets. At first I would try to photograph them but they would fly away. This vexed me because they ignored everyone else walking by as well as bicycles or loud vehicles in areas where there were roads.

I took it personally until I realized it wasn't me or my clothes, but the act of looking at them and taking an interest in them that spooked them.

This even happened at distances approaching 100 meters in open spaces, so I am not sure they could resolve my eyes and determine if my gaze was fixed on them. However, a few non-scientific tests suggested that they seemed to get nervous when I turned my head and looked at them, even though I kept moving. But even if I didn't look at them but instead continued to look forward, simply stopping and standing in place to take out my phone to snap a photo was enough to trigger them to fly away.

Question: Is there a term for this phenomenon in birds or other animals, not the flying away or fleeing part, but the recognition that something or someone potentially threatening is looking at them and/or may have taken an interest in them? Are there separate terms for responses to motion and responses to a gaze based on eyes or perceived face orientation?

Note: I have noticed a similar phenomenon with Malayan Night Herons as shown in What kind of big bird is this seen walking around Taipei? The individuals I see are more acclimated to people, but I still have to act at least disinterested when photographing them.

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  • $\begingroup$ I have heard this from a professional bird photographer. As I remember she only looked at birds through the camera viewfinder when ever feasible. $\endgroup$ – blacksmith37 Aug 21 '20 at 16:34
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    $\begingroup$ I have noted this phenomenon as well, exactly as you describe, with the Great Blue Herons in my area (and, notably, only with them.) It seems to derive from a combination of variation in gate and gaze, as the herons are perfectly content to ignore me standing or walking or running, but go into an alert posture whenever I alter speed or turn to look at them. However, a steady gaze does not perturb them, even at close range. As you say, acting indifferent is key, but this can be done, with practice, with one's face in any orientation. $\endgroup$ – kheironiscus Aug 21 '20 at 17:09
  • $\begingroup$ @kheironiscus Thanks for your feedback! Based on this I'll do some more "experimentation". $\endgroup$ – uhoh Aug 21 '20 at 23:11
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"Gaze" is the typical term for the direction something is looking, including head/neck and eye position. Gaze detection, gaze following, and gaze perception are used in the literature; there might be other combinations with the term "gaze", as well, I see lots of results with a more general gaze+predator search.

These are all more general terms than the specific use by prey animals, particularly in social gaze: being able to figure out what others around you are looking at, but they are to some extent the same sort of ability.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is exactly the kind of help I'm looking for, and now I can do further reading. Thanks! $\endgroup$ – uhoh Aug 21 '20 at 23:10

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