Team Magpie Wins Round One

Photo by Daniil Komov on

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.

It began:

“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.”


25 thoughts on “Team Magpie Wins Round One

  1. This leads me to wonder if magpies may have more self-awareness than humans, who willingly use smartphones that track their every move, cars with tracking software installed, corporate search engines like Google that gather data about them, social media like Facebook that collect similar data, etc. At least the magpies showed some gumption and determination in refusing to be tracked.

    Even if the scientists manage to design a harness that the birds cannot remove, one wonders how valid the data thus collected will be. The magpies are clearly well aware of the trackers and don’t like them (even if they don’t actually understand what they do). Their behavior with trackers attached might not be typical.

    Some birds are remarkably intelligent, crows being the best-known example. The willingness to co-operate to solve problems is a further example. In some cases, a problem that cannot be solved alone can be solved with assistance. If their memories are so good, that explains why even birds unburdened by trackers would help those who are so burdened to remove them. If bird A helps bird B, bird B will remember and help bird A out of a jam when an opportunity arises. Biologists call this “reciprocal altruism” and it’s surprisingly common in animals.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Ah, there’s wisdom in your showing us the magpies’ possibly greater intelligence than ours vis-a-vis tracking devices, Infidel. Perhaps that was a subconscious reason I found this story so appealing.

      I don’t know if the magpies are capable of sabotaging a subsequent experiment, but it’s an interesting thought.

      As for “reciprocal altruism,” there’s much evidence of animals’ doing this, but I think the term is an oxymoron. Some behaviorists agree and prefer “reciprocity,” as in “you remove my mites, and I’ll remove yours.”

      Not incidentally, some animals have been known to cheat on this arrangement: accepting the gift, but being unavailable when payback time arrives.

      The thinking of the Australian researchers was that the birds were doing something without the expectation of return. But they could well be sensing stress in their fellows, which could trigger a response for the greater good.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. No, no, mm. Magpies help one another. I don’t think there’s any record of behavior on tfg’s part that suggests such a thing—ever. And mockingbirds are also clever.

      I get the mental enemies list, though the magpies dive-bomb in self-defense. I see trump as more like the ten-year-old boys who taunt and bully, thereby earning a magpie maneuver.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. He couldn’t even figure out how to fold an umbrella, and I don’t think magpies come in orange. He’d be a MAGApie at best. Too fat to fly, he couldn’t dive-bomb his enemies, just endorse a bunch of turkeys to primary them. He’d get along well with the local vultures, though.


      2. Oh, I dunno about your last sentence, Infidel. Even vultures have a purpose: by eating decaying animals, they reduce the spread of disease. Based on trump’s Covid response, I think he failed the vulture test.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Many bird species are extraordinarily smart. I’m in the middle of two books that I failed to finish before needing to return them to the library. One was about pigeons used by diamond smugglers in South Africa mines. The author provides considerable background about scientific experiments that have been done to figure out how pigeons navigate. Many of these studies have been horribly cruel and we still don’t how pigeons do it.

    Another book that I enjoyed even more is A Most Remarkable Creature, about the caracara birds in South America. These animals are so uncannily smart that I would absolutely hesitate to burden them with devices strapped to their bodies to track their movement.

    Birds are fascinating on so many levels and I understand a scientist’s burning desire to know more about them but I think designing experiments that are innocuous is tricky business. Obviously, the magpies weren’t too happy with what the scientists felt was a non-invasive data-collection process.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks for providing the book suggestions, Carol. I’d be more inclined to read the second one.

      Yes, birds are endlessly fascinating. You’re right; what researchers in good faith thought was a fine, ethical endeavor earned a failing grade from the magpies. The scientists felt they learned a lot, but they may be missing the Big Picture.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I definitely recommend A Most Remarkable Creature. The other book had interesting moments but I don’t think it’s that well written. Far too many digressions from the main topic. I haven’t requested to get it back from the library, whereas the second book is again on hold.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. As someone who knows little about non-human life forms, I greatly appreciate this enlightening post. The next time I see a bird I won’t attempt to strike up a conversation, but I’ll give some thought to what it might be doing to assist its avian friends and family. Maintaining these life forms is yet another reason people need to address climate change.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Gail. I’m so pleased you felt that way. I don’t think you have to worry about striking up a conversation, though. And despite my having a bit of fun at the researchers’ expense, I agree that their conservation work is extremely important—even more so because of climate change.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Perhaps the birds would do a better job of running things than we humans. At least the magpie (and the crows, famously) are clear about their intelligence capabilities (memory, the discernment of threat and reward) and how to use it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. A good point, Denise—one that appeals to my anthropomorphism. I am having fun picturing a magpie-run legislature, though I can foresee problems if we need mask mandates again. Yet since they’re smart and adaptable, I may be underestimating them.


  5. this is fascinating, Annie! I just read an interesting book called something to the effect of, “are we smart enough to know how smart animals are” that was quite enlightening

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi, your magpie photo isn’t the Australian magpies (Gymnorhina tibicen) but the Eurasian magpie and they aren’t even closely related. They are called magpies because the first British settles thought they looked like Eurasian magpies. They were introduced into New Zealand, where I live, and are considered a bit of a pest. If you go to there are recordings over their song.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much; I stand corrected! I had originally inserted a video made by one of the researchers, but the birds weren’t sufficiently visible. I grabbed the image at the last minute—and to rephrase an old idiom, “haste makes magpie mistakes.”


      1. That’s great! Thanks so much for the link. I’m not sure, though, that my ears are sufficiently sophisticated to hear the purported “beauty” of their songs. Complex, for sure, but “beautiful”? (Must be my lack of discernment…)


    1. So sorry I haven’t responded sooner. Thank you for the link. I enjoyed your magpie coverage very much. And welcome to annieasksyou! I’m about to sign on to your blog too. Looking forward to some fine exchanges.


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