Clever, cooperative magpies thwart researchers

Australian magpies are known for their cleverness. In one study, they even outwitted researchers.
Credit: Toby Hudson

Australian magpies (Gymnorhina tibicen) are known for their cleverness, so it should be no surprise that when scientists sought to study their behavior, the birds managed to outwit the researchers. In her effort to study magpie behavior, Dominique Potvin, an animal ecologist at University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia, and her team devised a harness to carry a miniature GPS tracking device—a harness they believed would be nearly impossible for magpies to remove from their own bodies.

Maybe so. But it wasn’t impossible for them to remove the harness from another magpie’s body. Within 20 minutes, a magpie found the harness’ clasp and removed it from another bird. It happened over and over again will all five devices.

“At first it was heartbreaking,” Potvin told the New York Times, “but we didn’t realize how special it was. We went back to the literature and asked ourselves, ‘What did we miss?’ But there was nothing because this was actually new behavior.”

The researchers documented the findings in a recent paper in Australian Field Ornithology.

“This behavior demonstrates both cooperation and a moderate level of problem solving, providing potential further evidence of the cognitive abilities of this species,” they wrote.

Read more in the New York Times.