Not long ago, I posted some fascinating insights I’d learned about Lessons from Plants. Our flora friends depend on one another for the important things in life. They don’t hold back in asking for help.
I wasn’t surprised, then, to learn about similar behaviors in birds. And I’d long known from both studying and living with the feathery set that the term “birdbrain” is a misnomer.
A recent story about magpies underscored traits that we humans too often assume are ours alone.
“The Australian Magpie is one of the cleverest birds on earth. It has a beautiful song of extraordinary complexity. It can recognize and remember up to 30 different human faces.”
Thirty different human faces? Thirty just happens to be the number of people who often coinhabit the magpie’s territory.
This story, which appeared in the Science Times section of The New York Times, adds depth to our knowledge that many birds are astonishingly smart. The journal article on which it’s based provides the back story.
Before I get to the helping part, it’s worth knowing a few things about magpies. In this case, we’re talking about Australian Magpies (Gymnorhina tibicen), which are found in ninety percent of Australia.
Their “gorgeous, glorious caroling song” has more than 300 components, according to magpie expert Darryl Jones. He stresses:
“In order to remember and repeat a song of that complexity every single morning without error, you have to have a big brain.”
Some may not be thrilled to know that magpies enjoy dive-bombing humans (shades of Alfred Hitchcock!)—but not just any humans.
Often, these are “…people who resemble 10-year-old boys…because those are the kids who are more likely to be throwing sticks and stones, shouting and chasing and running at magpies.”
Another magpie expert quoted in the article says they attack the same individual again and again.
And with memories that we associate with elephants more than birds, they’ve been known to attack someone on their mental enemies list who’s been away from their territory for fifteen years.
As the public affairs manager of Birdlife Australia observes:
“If you think it’s personal, you’re right.”
OK; so they’re not the best ambassadors in behalf of human-animal bonding. But you can see that they’re defending their turf against presumed transgressors.
Now we move to the reason these magpies have gained attention recently.
Picture a group of earnest scientists who have designed a study they hope will expand understanding of animal behavior. Learning about animal patterns, they inform the reader, is valuable “not only to behavioral and evolutionary ecologists, but it also increases the effectiveness of conservation.”
Their plan seems not unreasonable or irresponsible to me: attach little GPS devices via harnesses onto several Australian Magpies (which are large enough to accommodate the data trackers without discomfort).
In an interview with the Times writer, animal ecologist Dominique Potvin said she and her team had spent six months designing the harness that would hold the tracking device—making sure it didn’t bother the birds and would stay in place.
It would be disarmed by a magnet as the birds reached a feeding station. The tracking device would then fall onto the platform, leaving the data packets there.
With this design, the scientists wouldn’t have to recapture the birds to get the data, and the battery could be smaller and lighter in weight than would otherwise be needed, as data collection would be more timely.
The birds’ legs would be banded for quick visual identification of those involved in the study.
Sounds good so far, yes?
These Australian Magpies have proven to be highly adaptable, living in woodlands, open areas, and cities. Their social groups normally number between two birds to a dozen.
The paper refers to them as “individuals.” I’m fine with that term, which seems apt. It appears that each magpie has an individual mental enemies list, for example—I read nothing about multiple birds dive-bombing the same person.
This study unfolded in August of 2019. First, for about a month, a group of ten “individuals” were made comfortable with a researcher’s presence. Then, using “soft-spring-loaded net traps” enriched by birdie goodies, the scientists caught five magpies in one morning: one adult male, two adult females, and two youngsters of indeterminate sex.
Each bird was fitted with its little explorer kit, banded on one leg, and sent off to do whatever magpies do.
But the magpies had other ideas, as noted in the Times headline:
“Australia’s Clever Birds Did Not Consent to This Science Experiment.”
The scientists watched with fascination while four of the magpies tried to remove the trackers by themselves. Then others winged in to help: first a juvenile, not successfully, followed by stronger birds that succeeded.
These good samaritans were without bands or trackers; thus, they had no immediate feathers in this game. That’s important.
Days after all the scientists’ hard work, they saw magpies with the leg bands, but none with the tracking devices intact. They described the magpies’ efforts as “rescue behavior: a specific form of cooperative behavior that involves a helper working to free another individual in distress, with no obvious direct benefit to the rescuing individual.”
In addition, they wrote that the behavior they observed was indicative of “complex problem-solving,” specifically noting that the unsuccessful juvenile was promptly nudged away by a more experienced adult female.
Having watched the magpies turn their elaborate experiment into a lemon, the researchers squeezed out some lemonade in the form of the additional research they determined is warranted.
They want to see if the magpies attacked the harness at various points—or simply kept pecking at one spot until it gave way. If they were experimenting, that would show “cognitive flexibility and learning with collaborative problem solving.”
And, of course, a new type of harness for the tracking device would have to be designed.
So we know that Australian Magpies react to their buddies in distress. And we know that researchers will persist in learning more about them.
I’m quite sure that we can look forward to The Sequel:
“How the Australian Magpies Joined Forces to Outsmart the Scientists Yet Again.”