Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Evolving magpies? Do they model different humans?

Posted by Dave Bath on 2008-10-25

The magpies at my daughter’s, who demonstrated reciprocal altuism with humans, again surprised us, with what can only imply that they’ve not only modelled what humans can do physically, but when humans are capable and willing to do things (apart from supply food) for magpies, things no magpies can do for themselves.

Rather than the common cursory couple of pecks at the glass door that usually means "I’m here in case you’ve got some titbits for me", my daughter heard frantic hard tapping that didn’t stop until she went to the door.

After my daughter opened the door, the magpie ("Trav") warbled loudly and flew off in a straight line to a small, but very dense tree in the yard.  It was obvious the magpie desperately wanted my daughter to follow.

Sitting on a branch, but unable to escape from the dense foilage and branches in all directions, one of the fledglings was literally sh*tting itself.  The male parent warbled insistently, standing at my daughter’s side.

After she pulled back the branches so the fledgling could get out, the father and fledgling (which was on its first or second flight from the nest) went straight back home.  About half an hour later, a long set of (not very insistent) pecks at the door attracted my daughter, who opened it, upon which the magpie gave a quick warble, and then casually flew off.

(My grandson, who the magpies are wary of unless he is obviously constrained, was in his cot at the time, so the magpie did not go away immediately out of caution!)

This got me pondering whether magpies are evolving in a way similar to the co-evolution of dogs and humans.  Humans and dogs are very good at reading each other’s moods, even when the particular animal is unfamiliar.  Both humans and dogs have gained selective advantage over other members of their tribe or pack.  There are even hints that our hopeless sense of smell compared to other great apes is due to a long history of dogs acting as our noses when hunting or on guard at night for prowling predators.

Perhaps there has been selective advantage for individual magpies if they can model human capabilities, as well as differentiate between humans according to their friendliness to magpies.

I wonder what those magpies think they can do in return (apart from when they offer us nice juicy worms as described in a previous post).

About a week later (I stay at my daughter’s more weekends than I don’t), we were hanging around with the father magpie in the yard, and he exibited another behaviour I’d never seen before:

He was warbling a normal-sounding song for a couple of minutes, but incredibly softly: if I’d been much more than a metre away from him there is no way we would have heard it.  The fledglings were both within 50 metres and probably couldn’t hear their father above the wind and rustling trees, with the one that had got himself caught in the tree again being a bit of an idiot.

It was almost as if he was warbling for our ears only.  (He has since done this when it’s only him and me in the yard and the fledglings were with the mum or adolescent.)

My daughter cracked up when I said that I knew what he was probably saying: "Toddlers/fledglings, they’re such a bloody handful.  Sometimes you’d just like to be able to relax for a few minutes!  Do you know where I can get a good babysitter?"

I’ll admit that "translation" is a long shot, but I reckon it is almost odds-on that the magpie was trying to communicate something to us and didn’t want the kids to hear.

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7 Responses to “Evolving magpies? Do they model different humans?”

  1. Bruce said

    Ah, you got me with “the co-evolution of dogs and humans.”

    Back in ecology when we were talking about co-evolution, I kept coming up with examples of mutualisms between humans and “doggies.”

    Today I was briefly discussing the ability of dogs to parse a certain amount of human language – which differs somewhat to canid communication. I wonder if the faculty in less advanced canids is/was sufficient to the task, or if it co-evolved.

    Then there is this fellow (YouTube – 30 seconds). Awww… I’m sure that with the rest of the canine faculties at work, Odie had some idea of what his human is communicating. Poor little fella past away this year.

  2. Dave Bath said

    Basically, the more useful the dog (be it as a companion, or rounding up sheep and not biting them, warning of predators,etc), the more likely it would be fed, and breeding encouraged by humans.

    The more likely a human (we are talking before such pressure was removed) could read a dog’s bark (whether it was communicating with other dogs, or whether there was some danger nearby), the better the change of the human avoiding lions. There were experiments where humans were shown pictures/short_videos of dogs (that had been assessed by vet psychologists and/or their circumstances at the moment known) and asked what mood the dog was in. Most humans picked the mood of most dogs pretty well. The same was not true of cats.

    There was an interesting experiment (Russian I think), where foxes (which “naturally” avoid humans) were breed according to how much they avoided/welcomed human contact. I think it took between 6 and 12 generations to have a fox that was absolutely desperate for human contact.

    The co-evolution bit is a relatively recent theory, but to me it does possess explanatory power.

  3. Bruce said

    There was an interesting experiment (Russian I think), where foxes (which “naturally” avoid humans) were breed according to how much they avoided/welcomed human contact. I think it took between 6 and 12 generations to have a fox that was absolutely desperate for human contact.

    It was Russian, indeed.

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  6. Dave Bath said

    The other day, my daughter and her partner were absolutely certain that Trav (the patriarch magpie) came up and said “Hello” (sounding a bit like a cockatoo apparently, but much smoother)

    I wouldn’t have believed it unless I’d read about another magpie doing this in the charming book "Corvus: A Life With Birds" by Esther Woolfson which I purchased after writing this post (sneaking peeks at large chunks before giving it to my daughter).

    Here’s the blurb (my bolding)

    Esther Woolfson has been fascinated by corvids, the bird group that includes crows, rooks, magpies and ravens, since her daughter rescued a fledgling rook sixteen years ago. That rook – named Chicken – has lived with the family ever since. Other birds have also taken their place in the household – a magpie, starling, parrot and the inhabitants of an outdoor dovehouse. But above all, it has been the corvids (a talking magpie named Spike, Chicken the rook, and, recently, a baby crow named Ziki) that she has formed the closest attachments with, amazed by their intelligence, personality and capacity for affection. Living with birds has allowed Woolfson to learn aspects of bird behaviour which would otherwise have been impossible to know – the way they happily become part of the structure of a family, how they communicate, their astonishing empathy. We hear about Chicken’s fears and foibles: her hatred of computers and other machines and her love of sitting on Woolfson’s knee in the evening and having her neck scratched; the birds’ elaborate bathing rituals, springtime broodiness, and tendency to cache food in the most unlikely places. Woolfson tells the darker story of way corvids have always been objects of superstition and persecution; and with the lightest of touches, she weaves in the science of bird intelligence, evolution, song and flight throughout. Her account of her experiences is funny, touching and beautifully written, and gives fascinating insights into the closeness human beings can achieve with wild creatures.

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