Australia’s Sneaky Magpies Birds Did Not Consent to This Science Experiment

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.

When researchers placed small GPS tracking devices on Australian magpies (Gymnorhina tibicen), they intended to learn more about the birds’ movements and social dynamics. Instead, the crafty magpies teamed up to outsmart the scientists and helped each other dismantle and remove their trackers.

The research, published last week in the journal Australian Field Ornithology, showed one of the first evidences of cooperative “rescue” in birds – a behaviour in which an individual Australian magpie, Gymnorhina tibicen, helped another member of the group without getting an immediate, tangible reward.

“Our goal was to learn more about the movement and social dynamics of these highly intelligent birds, and to test these new, durable and reusable devices. Instead, the birds outsmarted us,” study lead author Dominique Potvin from the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia wrote in The Conversation.

In the pilot study, scientists initially planned to test a new design for a harness that held the tracker using a novel method that didn’t require birds to be caught again to download GPS data from the trackers, or reuse the small devices.

They trapped five magpies using soft-spring-loaded net traps one morning, and attached GPS trackers with harness to them.

The harness, scientists say, had a weak point engineered into the thread that would release when magnetised, which created a passive release system for the retrieval of the GPS tracker, avoiding the need to recapture the birds.

Their idea was that when habituated birds returned to the feeding station, they would encounter a magnet that would release the harness and tracker, allowing the researchers to easily retrieve the GPS device afterwards.

To remove the harness from the birds, researchers said, one either needed either a magnet, or some “really good scissors.”

“We were excited by the design, as it opened up many possibilities for efficiency and enabled a lot of data to be collected,” scientists noted.

While previous studies have shown magpies to be intelligent, social creatures that “excel in problem solving,” scientists said they did not expect the birds to target the specific weakness in the harness and quickly team up to rid the device off each other as a group.

“Notably, removal was observed to involve one bird snapping another bird’s harness at the only weak point, such that the tracker was released,” scientists wrote in the study.

Within ten minutes of fitting the final tracker, Dr Potvin said researchers witnessed an adult female without a tracker working with her bill to try and remove the harness off of a younger bird, and in hours, most of the other trackers had been removed.

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

Scientists said the study is also one of the first evidences of birds showing rescue behaviour in which a worker tried to free another individual in distress, with no obvious direct benefit to the rescuing individual.