Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Magpie morality??

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?

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14 Responses to “Magpie morality??”

  1. Bruce said

    Kin selection explains the evolutionary origins (and anthropomorphism acted out by humans demonstrates the projection of one’s own nature onto other species – something that I gather other species do in their own way). Kin selection is particularly strong in some species of Australian birds (resource scarcity selects strongly for the trait).

    Naturally, creationists don’t like the notion of kin selection. Apparently by explaining how something can be, it belittles it (a notion I disagree with – rather I think if kin selection can apparently belittle it for them, they didn’t think much of the behaviour in the first place).

    On another front, my friend’s dog had a fuss over a pigeon once. Wouldn’t settle down until it knew the bird was taken care of.

    Incidentally, my Grandfather used to feed magpies after his hunting trips. They used to see him coming from a great distance and would be waiting for him when they got home.

  2. That’s awesome. The magpies in our place also know to keep away from the two year old, although she is a good source of crumbs and the like. Remarkably clever birds.

  3. We have magpies here at Yuendumu in the NT but at nowhere near the numbers in the south and they are only rarely seen in town, where the Torresian and Little Crows (I can’t tell them apart) dominate as the resident large corvids. I’ve been away for a month but in mid-August we had a leucistic Crow around our yard for a while and I watched it’s interaction with the others closely – it seemed to spend a lot of time hiding alone in (relatively) heavy Euc foliage in our yard but I saw no obvious signs of agonistic behaviour. The local Pied Butcherbirds come around and call for their (mealworm) snacks when they know I am about…

  4. Dave Bath said

    LE said: "The magpies in our place also know to keep away from the two year old"

    I was back at my daughter’s, and the patriarch magpie seems to be “toying” with my grandson (19 months) by hopping to stay just out of reach when chased about the yard – rather than simply flying off. This goes on for a few minutes, and it’s usually my grandson who tires of the game before the magpie. Mind you, it comes much closer when the toddler has food to share (“I’ll take a bite, throw a piece, take a bite, throw a piece….”)

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  7. Dave Bath said

    While I reported on the adolescent magpie offering half a worm, I saw its father bring us a nice juicy moth the other day.

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