Tag Archives: Magpie

Magpies: 1, Scientists: 0. Birds help each other to remove tracking devices

Many birds that live together cooperate with each other to ensure and enhance the survival and safety of the group. Magpies are no exception, as some scientists who were testing new types of tracking devices for birds would learn. The crafty birds helped each other to remove the devices, much to the surprise of the researchers. But what they lost in GPS trackers and hours of fieldwork, the researchers gained ten-fold in their understanding of these remarkable social species.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

The magpie is a relatively large bird (about 300 grams) native to Australia, omnipresent across the continent. It lives in small social groups, occupying and strongly defending a single territory. Although it’s an abundant species, not much is known about its movement, social interaction within and between family groups, and spatial and temporal range.

A group of researchers from the University of the Sunshine Coast wanted to further learn about the movement and social dynamics of these very intelligent birds while testing a new tracking device. But things didn’t go as planned. “The birds outsmarted us,” Dominique Potvin, an animal ecologist and study co-author, wrote in a blog post.

“The magpies began showing evidence of cooperative ‘rescue’ behaviour to help each other remove the tracker,” Potvin wrote. “While we’re familiar with magpies being intelligent and social creatures, this was the first instance we knew of that showed this type of seemingly altruistic behaviour: helping another member of the group.”

A very clever group of birds

Most trackers are usually too big to be used on small and medium-sized birds. There are some smaller trackers but they are limited in the amount of data they can store or their battery life. That’s why Potvin and the group of researchers were excited with their new, state-of-the-art tracker, which weighs less than one gram and is capable of re-charge wirelessly.

For their study, the researchers trained a group of magpies (Gymnorhina tibicen) to visit an outdoor feeding station. Five of these birds were fitted with the device. A harness held the tracker tight and to remove it, you would need a “good pair of scissors or a magnet,” according to Potvin. But things didn’t go as planned. Apparently, a friend’s crafty beak will do.

Only 10 minutes after fitting the fifth and last tracker, an adult female without a tracker started to help a younger bird to remove the harness – eventually succeeding. This pattern was repeated in the following hours, with almost all trackers of the experiment removed. By the third day, the dominant male had its tracker dismantled.

“We don’t know if it was the same individual helping each other or if they shared duties, but we had never read about any other bird cooperating in this way to remove tracking devices,” Potvin wrote in the blog post. “The birds needed to problem solve, possibly testing at pulling and snipping at different sections of the harness with their bill.”

The researchers said they didn’t expect the magpies to see the tracker as some sort of parasite that had to be removed. But that’s what happened. There’s only one similar example of this type of behavior ever recorded. The Seychelles warblers (Acrocephalus sechellensis) were seen helping release others in the group from sticky seed clusters.

While the experiment failed, the researchers highlighted the importance of tracking magpies. They are very vulnerable to heatwaves, which are becoming more common and intense amid the climate crisis. A recent study found that the survival rate of magpie chicks amid heatwaves is as low as 10%, with higher temperatures also affecting their cognitive performance.

The (failed) study can be accessed here.  

Some birds leave no one behind — they share their food with those less fortunate

Helping others is a key feature of human behavior but it’s not necessarily something exclusive to humans, according to a new study. Researchers found birds care about the fate of conspecific birds, noticing how much food others have and sharing theirs with individuals that are going hungry.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

Food-sharing observed among humans in daily-life events such as dinner parties, and there is evidence that this was present even in pre-historic humans. But food-sharing is also relatively common in the wild, especially between individuals and their offspring.

“My earlier research has shown that birds also sometimes do something for someone else,” said Jorg Massen, lead-author, in a statement. “The question was, however, whether this is an instinctive behavior that is ingrained, or whether this behavior is flexible, and whether these birds might also take into account how great the need of the other animal is.”

To investigate sociality in birds, Massen worked with Azure-winged magpies in an experiment. He gave one bird an abundance of mealworms, a popular delicacy for these birds, while the rest had limited access or were given nothing at all. The magpie had the chance to share the mealworms through a wire mesh.

The researchers found out that the birds were inclined to share food with their peers. They differentiate, however, between others that have or do not have food, and subsequently cater to that lack. Females shared with the ones that had nothing, while males always shared, likely as a way to showcase themselves as generous.

The magpies were more inclined to share food as a response to begging but would share with those less fortunate even if they weren’t asked. This shows that they might truly notice the need of others, even without specific behavior from other birds. They may even show sympathy, according to Massen.

The study shows that magpies can exhibit prosocial behavior just like people, and that they may well have the same motivation as we do to engage in such behavior. This might indicate that they can empathize with the situation in which their peers find themselves and act accordingly. Still, further work is needed to tell if this is the case.

At the same time, the research also confirmed what scientists previously found in other animal species: cooperative breeders that raise their young together have a strong tendency to help each other.

“Because we let our children grow up in groups, we have become prosocial and can work well together. We now also see this in the azure-winged magpies,” said Massen.

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Australian bushfires: magpie now sings the song of the firetrucks

It’s difficult to comprehend just how devastating the 2020 Australian bushfires are.

Over 6.3 million hectares (16 million acres) have been burned down, fueled by unprecedented heat and drought — and the figure continues to grow. Hundreds of millions of animals have been killed or injured by the fires, and entire species have likely been destroyed in the process.

Words can’t do this tragedy justice. Even animals which are not directly in the line of fire are heavily affected. A recent video showed a magpie mimicking the sound of firetrucks, which it had incessantly heard in recent days.


Stunningly, the Australian magpie reproduces the firetruck sound with high accuracy.

The magpie is a native Australian bird well known for its intelligence and ability to mimic. They have one of the biggest vocal ranges of any bird in the world and are known to reproduce commonly heard sounds such as dogs barking and running motors.

The cognitive abilities of the magpies are what enables them to mimic sounds, but the fact that they heard firetrucks day in and day out also helped.

“Remarkable, proof of the intelligence of these birds. I also see a Magpie, mimicking a fire siren in the Newcastle area, as a symptom of climate change. A metaphorical version of a ‘canary in a coal mine’,” wrote Paul Richards on the original post.

The canary in the coal mine has long faltered, in this case, and the problem shows no sign of stopping. There were about 136 fires burning across New South Wales (NSW) as of Monday 6th of January, and 69 of these are not currently contained.

There are already 24 confirmed casualties, and over 1,000 buildings have burned down. Several settlements have been evacuated by boat.

For the animals, however, the situation is much more dire.

Professor Chris Dickman estimates that 480 million animals have been affected since bushfires in (NSW) started in September 2019 — and most of these have been killed either directly by the fire, or by starvation as their habitat has been destroyed — and even this figure might be conservative.

Bushfires are accentuated by climate change. Rising temperatures and drought exacerbate the strength of wildfires. Climate change does not create bushfires, but it makes them much more powerful, which is what we have consistently been seeing in Australia.

Australia is one of the world’s largest producers of coal, and under the current administration, has been vocal against phasing out fossil fuels and reducing emissions. Australia is the victim of a tragedy that, unfortunately, it too has helped build.


Australian magpies can understand what other birds are ‘saying’ with surprising clarity

Australian magpies can understand the warning calls of other birds, a new study suggests.


Image credits Toby Hudson.

Despite their name, Australian magpies (Gymnorhina tibicen) aren’t actually very magpie-y. They’re actually part of a separate family of birds that are indigenous to Australia, Southern Asia, and the Indo-Pacific, while true magpies (family Corvidae) belong to the evolutionary family of crows.

However, the magpies down under seem to have an ace up their wings that should allow them to fit right in with their European counterparts. New research showed the birds can understand signals of at least one other species, the noisy miner, suggesting they could learn to interpret other species as well.

Orange balls and noisy miners

Noisy miners (Manorina melanocephala, not the profession) are a native species of birds that share their ecosystem with the Australian magpie. This small bird of the honeyeater family uses different calls to warn its peers of incoming predators. One characteristic that’s been especially useful for the team is that the noisy miners employ different warning calls for airborne and ground-based predators.

By playing recordings of both calls to wild magpies, the team observed that these could understand the meaning behind the noisy miners’ warnings.

The study took part in four locations in Canberra, including the Australian National University campus and parks in Turner. The researchers lured unsuspecting wild magpies with, funnily enough, grated cheese — then played the recorded calls back to them and filmed the results. As a control, the researchers used a large orange ball. They’d either roll this towards magpies, to gauge their response to ground threats, or throw it around, to see how the birds reacted to airborne predators. Which must have been hilarious to witness.

Over 30 adult, wild magpies had their reactions video-taped twice, while 9 individuals simply flew away.

magpie beak angle

B marks the base of the beak and T the tip. Tracker software was used to obtain coordinates for both B and T for every video frame, and researchers used this to calculate the change in beak angle.
Image credits Branislav Igic/Australian National University.

The team reports that the Australian magpie’s typical response to perceived threats is a tilting of the beak: the birds showed an average maximum beak angle of 29 degrees for the thrown ball, and an average maximum of 9 degrees when it was rolled. The miners’ aerial warning calls prompted an average maximum beak angle of 31 degrees, while the ground warning prompted an average of 24.

It may seem like useless trivia, but the reason why the team measured these angles is quite central to the research. They wanted to determine not just whether the magpies use the miners’ calls as danger warnings — the authors wanted to see if the magpies can understand what kind of danger each call signaled. The control test proved that magpies will aim their beaks towards the expected elevation of a threat. The second round of tests suggests that they can indeed discern the meaning of the miners’ calls, as the magpies consistently aimed their beaks higher for aerial warning calls than they did for terrestrial warning signals.

“A lot of birds around the world have been shown to respond to a degree of threat, but this is a little bit more nuanced,” says co-author Dominique Potvin. “We’re not looking at ‘if you scream louder does that mean more danger and you hide’. This is a very particular sound that indicates the spatial location of something. For the magpies to actually hone in on that is pretty new.”

Speaking in beaks

The team writes that Australian magpies and noisy miners face the same type of predators: brown goshawks, peregrine falcons and boobook owls from the skies, and foxes, cats, dogs, and snakes on the ground. The two species also frequently share the same ecosystems. But the magpies spend most of their time on the ground looking for food, while noisy miners, completely out of character with their name, like to perch out in trees.

The team believes that listening in to the latter’s warnings gave the magpies an edge against predators. So far, they’re the only species that we know of with this ability.

“It pays for the magpie to pay attention to somebody who has a better view of predators than they do,” Potvin explains. “Magpies are a pretty smart group. We’re not sure if they’re learning this from other magpies or if they’re figuring it out on their own, but the ability is there. We don’t think this would be isolated to Canberra populations.”

Just to make sure the birds weren’t reacting to the sound alone, the team also played a third call: the generic, non-warning call of a crimson rosella (Platycercus elegans), a parrot native to eastern and southeastern Australia. The magpies showed no response to this call.

The paper “Birds orient their heads appropriately in response to functionally referential alarm calls of heterospecifics” has been published in the journal Animal Behavior.