It’s swooping season for aggressive birds as people invade their nesting spaces. The biggest culprit is the magpie which gets a bad press at this time of year but the latest research into these aggressive birds suggests there is more to their behaviour than meets the eye.
Although magpies have always had a penchant for mischief, a study published in the journal Australian Field Ornithology reports they have taken this to a new level – outwitting the scientists who set out to study them.
Scientists at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland set out in 2019 to study magpie social behaviour. The team led by Dominque Potvin spent six months perfecting a harness that would carry miniature tracking devices in a way that was unintrusive for the birds. They believed it would be nearly impossible for magpies to remove the harnesses from their own bodies. How wrong the researchers were.
The birds flew off with the tracking devices, showing no obvious signs of distress. Then everything began to unravel. The first tracker was off within half an hour.
Dr Potvin said in a remarkable act of co-operation, a magpie wearing the tracker remained still while another worked at the harness with its beak. Within 20 minutes, the helping magpie found the only weak point, a single clasp, and snipped it with its beak.
The scientists later saw different magpies removing harnesses from two other birds outfitted with them. The program has now been shelved.
“At first it was heartbreaking,” Dr. Potvin said, detailing the study. “We didn’t realise how special it was. We went back to the literature and said to ourselves, ‘What did we miss?’ But there was nothing because this was actually new behaviour.”
It was only the second example of what Dr Potvin described as “altruistic rescue behaviour”, where birds help other birds without receiving tangible benefits in return. The first was when Seychelles warblers helped others escape from sticky seed clusters in which they had become entangled.
The magpies’ behaviour was, Dr. Potvin said, “a special combination of helping but also problem solving, of being really social and having this cognitive ability to solve puzzles.”
She said it may explain why magpies are so successful in changing environments on farms and in urban areas, adding: “They’ve managed to figure things out in a new way.”
The intelligence of magpies has been recognised for some time, even if it is not on the level of the super-smart parrots and crows. Magpies can recognise the faces of as many as 30 people, which is the average number who live within a magpie’s territory. And they are said to rarely attack more than one or two people. It’s the same individual people that they attack each time.
As Sean Dooley, the public affairs manager of Birdlife Australia, put it: “If you think it’s personal, you’re right.”