Posted by Dave Bath on 2008-09-17
Just after I read about European magpies (Pica pica) recognizing themselves in mirrors, (the paper suggests that rather than assuming it was another bird, which has been attributed to their ability -and lifestyle need – to form models of the minds of other animals), the Australian magpie (Gymnorhina tibicen) buddies of my daughter and grandson started showing reciprocal altruism – to humans.
After scoffing down some cheesy bread bits, the adolescent of the local magpie family hopped off, caught a worm, brought it back to drop at my daughter’s feet, waited until she picked up the offering and said thankyou, then flew up back to its nest.
This has happened a few times, and doesn’t appear to be pure chance.
I’d be interested to know whether any readers have noticed similar behaviour in the various species of Australian magpies.
When my daughter moved into her house, and was worried about my grandson being swooped, I’d reminded her of how magpies could recognize humans, especially if they’d been nursed back to health as fledglings, that even if they, (or their human buddies), had moved a suburb away but later "discovered", they might visit once or twice a year outside their territory as if to show off each batch of kids, or teach them "this family of humans is safe and good for a feed".
But I’d never seen magpies give food to their favorite humans before!
They’ve also learnt that I’m trustworthy, even though I’m only there for a weekend or two a month since my daughter shifted house a few months back. They’re smart enough to keep a few hops away from my 18-month old grandson, who’d probably hug them to death, stay at least 20m away from non-regular visitors, and enthusiastically swoop other humans walking down the street.
The adult male has even hopped through the open glass door a couple of times, keeping a wary distance from the toddler, even while getting underfoot of we adults.
Here are the rules the local magpie family seem to have for other fauna in my daughter’s backyard.
- Dogs/cats: Moderately close swoops.
- Sparrows: give them a good scare when the sparrows approach the scraps.
- Rosellas and small honey-eaters: ignore.
- Plovers and ibis: avoid.
- Seagulls: Close swoop and chase – including beaks up the bum.
- Wattle-birds: only a half-hearted swoop if the wattle-birds go near the scraps, but tag-team with them against a crow.
- Wagtails: ignore most of the time (perhaps because the wagtails, even though competing for food sources, will hassle crows)
- Crows: Close "dog-fight" one crow, but with two crows, the whole family will go back to the nest.
With most animals, it makes perfect sense to have an innate response on a species by species basis. In dogs, altruism to certain humans makes sense given the selective pressure of our co-evolution. With our similar appearance and behavior to other great apes, it makes sense that they show non-reciprocal altruism to strange humans. With the learning capabilities of magpies, it makes sense that some humans will be trusted while others are attacked.
How do magpies model humans?
- Do the see us as bipedal, and therefore as some weird, large flightless bird with feathers that change color from day to day?
- Do they assume because they like our food, that we’ll like theirs?
- Do they think we don’t eat nice juicy worms simply because we can’t catch them with our too-short beaks and our stiff backs?
However, even if the magpies are modelling non-magpie minds, and have good internal models of their own selves, what makes a magpie show a form of altruism (even if only reciprocal) to another species?
If even the modest intelligence of a magpie can exhibit behaviour suggesting some sense of fair play, of resource-sharing, what does this say of those humans, (individuals or nations), who avariciously horde resources and condemn entire continents to poverty and conflict?
- "A magpie’s life" (Sydney Morning Herald 2004-09-28) reviewing "The Australian Magpie" by Gisela Kaplan:
Kaplan has observed "inexplicable altruism" in the birds, witnessing events such as the intervention of a group of magpies to save the life of a crested pigeon under attack from a Little Eagle.
- "Mirror-Induced Behavior in the Magpie (Pica pica): Evidence of Self-Recognition" (PLoS Biology, 2008-08-19,doi=10.1371/journal.pbio.0060202)
- "Spontaneous Altruism by Chimpanzees and Young Children" (PLoS Biology, 2007-06-26, doi=10.1371/journal.pbio.0050184)