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Scientists have been outsmarted by magpies by assisting one another in removing tracking devices

By: April Carson

Australian magpies were the focus of an animal ecologist at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia, who was looking forward to beginning a research on the birds. She and her team had a new technology to test and many questions regarding the birds' movements and social interactions.

The magpies, on the other hand, had different ideas. The birds exhibited cooperative "rescue" behavior within minutes of being fitted with tiny, backpack-like trackers. Rather then simply fly away and abandon their devices, the magpies would gather in groups to remove the trackers.

In a new paper, Potvin and her coauthors describe how they witnessed their planned experiment come apart in real time, as well as what it taught them about bird behavior and conducting wild animal experiments.

Testing New Devices

Many animal species have been tracked using Global Positioning Systems (GPS) devices in recent years. However, the technology's size has limited the number of species investigated.

Songbirds, for example, are generally too small to carry GPS devices. That's one of the reasons Potvin selected Australian magpies for her research. Australian magpies are not corvids, despite their name. They're more closely related to robins than they are to crows, according to Potvin.

GPS tracking units have gotten smaller and more sophisticated over time. The ones Potvin utilized weighed less than one gram, so he didn't think it would be a problem for a 300-gram magpie. However, tiny trackers come with their own set of issues, such as limited battery life and storage capacity.

Potvin and her staff taught a flock of wild magpies to come to an outdoor feeding station in order to address these problems. The tracker's battery may be recharged wirelessly and its data downloaded from this station.

The tracking device's harness was also unusual, as it was designed with a single vulnerable point that could be opened using a magnet. The concept was that once a bird returned to the feeding station, it would come into contact with a magnet, freeing up the harness and tracker for easy retrieval.

Potvin and her team trained a group of magpies to visit the feeding station over many months, and they planned their study. Finally, the time had come: They trapped five of the birds and attached GPS trackers to them. The researchers expected that all they had to do next was wait, observe, and encourage the birds back to the station to gather all of the data.

Saving Magpies

Potvin and her crew recorded an adult magpie attacking the harness of a younger bird after putting on the last tracker and releasing the birds in 10 minutes.

“At first, we thought it was just preening the young bird," says Potvin. “But that bird worked for 20 minutes on the harness, testing different sections of it, until it discovered the weak point and plummeted to the ground.”

It was no fluke. “By the end of day three, none of the birds had their trackers on in our pilot study,” Potvin adds.

Another magpie was observed removing four of the five trackers right in front of the researchers' eyes. They don't know if it was always the same bird that assisted in removing the trackers, or whether multiple individuals collaborated to do so.

Researchers were shocked and amazed by the magpie's ability to solve a complex problem. Furthermore, the behavior appeared to be altruistic, with no immediate or tangible benefit for the helper.

“We couldn't find any other case of birds working together in this manner to remove tracking devices,” adds Potvin. “It was devastating, but also kind of fascinating.”

According to the researchers, their observations closely resemble a little-known behavior known as "rescuing." Rescuing is a unique form of cooperative behavior in which one animal tries to assist another who is trapped. It has been observed in ants and some animals, however it is only known in the Seychelles warbler.

Scientists described Seychelles warblers assisting to disentangle fellow birds from the sticky seed clusters of Pisonia trees in a 2017 research. Potvin and her team propose that what they witnessed was the initial documented case of rescue behavior among Australian magpies, according to their findings.

What did we learn about Magpies?

The researchers observed that when a magpie became entangled in a Pisonia tree, other magpies would fly to the rescue. They would land on the branch where the victim was stuck and start pulling at the plant material until the bird was free. The team also found that magpies were more likely to help others who were in a group, and that the rescue behavior was more common among older magpies.

According to Potvin and her team, the study illustrates the value of conducting small test projects before employing large-scale monitoring systems on animals.

“We discovered that the magpies don't appreciate the trackers; they worked really hard to remove them from everyone,” Potvin adds. “This indicates that using this method of tracking is not ethical.

“They're also not very scientific, because they're modifying their behavior based on what we're doing, which isn't what you want when studying natural behavior in the wild.”

Potvin and her team also warn that scientists interested in studying species that are both intelligent and cooperative should be aware that “rescuing” might pose a problem in their study design.

Potvin's investigation of Australian magpies has been put on hold for the moment, but it is still vital to learn more about these birds, she adds. Given a recent research that revealed that the increasing frequency and intensity of heatwaves in Australia may hurt not just magpie chick survival rates but also their cognitive abilities, this is especially important.

Those findings emphasize the need for knowledge of these birds' customs in a changing world. Even common species like Australian magpies may be affected by human activities in unexpected ways.

Despite her irritation with the outcome of this pilot study, Potvin praises the magpies' brains and social ties.

“It may appear stupid that we were outsmarted by birds,” she adds. “But at the same time, I have to give these birds their due. I'm fine with being outsmarted by birds.”

According to Potvin, the ability of magpies to work together in order to remove a tracking device is just one more example of the birds’ impressive intelligence. The findings of this study also suggest that magpies may be able to learn from each other, something that has not been explored before. This information could help researchers understand the social relationships of these birds in greater detail.

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About the Blogger:

April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on

To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav



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