‘The Birds Outsmarted Us’: Magpies Help Each Other Remove Scientists’ Tracking Devices

‘The Birds Outsmarted Us’: Magpies Help Each Other Remove Scientists’ Tracking Devices

Scientists in Australia thought they had developed an innovative new tracking device to help them monitor magpies, but these crafty birds had other ideas.

New research published in Australian Field Ornithology describes an experiment that didn’t go as planned. A small group of Australian magpies (Cracticus tibicen), after being fitted with harness-like tracking devices, unilaterally decided to opt out; the scientists watched as the birds helped each other remove the devices, in what they say is a potential sign of altruism and strong evidence of problem solving among these highly social and intelligent creatures.

Scientists refer to this as “rescue behaviour, ” and it happens when a helper tries to free another individual in distress and “with no obvious direct benefit to the rescuing individual,” as the authors write in their paper. This sort of thing is common in ants, but it’s also been documented in Seychelles warblers, who are known to liberate each other from sticky Pisonia grandis seeds. In this case, it’s “possible that what we have observed is the first documented case of rescue behaviour in Australian Magpies,” according to the paper.

The purpose of the experiment was to learn more about the movements and social dynamics of magpies, like how far they travel each day and how their social behaviours are influenced by sex, age, and rank. But the study had a second purpose, which was to test the newly developed and unproven tracking device. “Instead, the birds outsmarted us,” Dominique Potvin, an ornithologist at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia, explained in a post published to The Conversation.

Most trackers are too big to fit on small and medium sized birds, and small trackers tend to be limited when it comes to data storage, battery life, and reusability. The new tracker, weighing less than 1 gram, was designed to overcome these problems. Attached to a backpack-like harness, the device can re-charge wirelessly, transmit data wirelessly, and detach with the use of a magnet (which meant the birds wouldn’t have to be re-caught at the end of the experiment). The team was “excited by the design, as it opened up many possibilities for efficiency and enabled a lot of data to be collected,” Potvin wrote.

(a) The harness and tracker, (b)-(d) diagrams showing how the harness detaches through contact with a magnet. (Image: J. Crampton et al., 2022/Australian Field Ornithology)
(a) The harness and tracker, (b)-(d) diagrams showing how the harness detaches through contact with a magnet. (Image: J. Crampton et al., 2022/Australian Field Ornithology)

For the pilot study, the team trained a local group of magpies to frequent an outdoor feeding station. Five of these birds were fitted with the device. The design was meant to be durable, save for a weak point where the magnet needed to function. The harness could not be removed easily, as it required a magnet “or some really good scissors,” Potvin explained.

Things started to fall apart, quite literally, almost immediately. Within 10 minutes of fitting the fifth and final tracker, an adult female without a tracker was busy trying to remove the harness from a younger bird, eventually succeeding. This pattern was repeated in the following hours, and by the third day the final tracker had been removed from a dominant male. The scientists aren’t sure if the same individual removed all of the harnesses or if others chipped in to help, but they said it’s a possible sign of rescue behaviour. Potvin brought up a good point, saying the birds “needed to willingly help other individuals, and accept help.”

The newly documented behaviour is also consistent with complex cognitive problem solving, as the scientists wrote in their paper:

[It] is not clear if the Magpies tested different parts of the harness before being able to snap it off at the weakest point, or if they simply persevered until the harness broke. If the former, this may demonstrate cognitive flexibility and learning with collaborative problem solving. Without further specific testing, however, it is difficult to establish if the Magpies worked on a weak point of the harness or if attempts at removal were somewhat random or systematic. Nevertheless, further research into cognitive problem solving within Magpies, especially in the context of helping other group members, is warranted to further understand collaborative behaviour. In addition, we suggest that attempts to track animals with high cognitive and/or cooperative abilities, should take into consideration potential collaborative efforts to remove devices.

High intelligence and problem solving abilities are often observed among social species. Cooperation in these contexts is good, as it boosts an individual’s chance of survival within the group, and groups do best when individuals are strong and healthy. For magpies, who live in groups with as many as a dozen members, these cognitive traits allow them to collectively defend territory and communally raise young. It’s likely that the tracking device was perceived as a parasite that needed to be removed — something the researchers hadn’t considered going into the project.

But that’s how science works sometimes. The team didn’t get the data they wanted, but their experiment still yielded interesting results. The new paper also demonstrates the need for small pilot studies, because you don’t always get what you expect.

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