Magpies Outwit Scientists by Helping Each Other

Study shows that birds can be altruistic.

Apr 28, 2022
Magpies Outwit Scientists by Helping Each Other | Study shows that birds can be altruistic.

We all know that birds of a feather flock together, but apparently birds of a feather also help each other. At least this is the case with Australian magpies.

A recent study, published in Birdlife Australia, by animal ecologist Dominique Potvin from the University of Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia, has discovered that magpies may act altruistically. 

A happy accident
Like many great discoveries, this one was an accident. Potvin wrote in The Conversation that she and her team of  scientists were trying to find a way to track a group of Australian magpies. The usual trackers used on larger animals were too heavy for the birds, so the researchers developed tiny little trackers that could be attached to the magpies with little harnesses.

Unfortunately, the magpies were not fans of their new tiny gear,  and that’s when the magic happened. About ten minutes after they had fitted the trackers onto the magpies, the scientists noticed that a non-tracked magpie approached one of the tracker magpies and started pecking at its harness.

Then more magpies arrived and started helping. And just like that, the tracker fell off and was lost. The scientists were shocked and a little dismayed, especially when they realized that the other four magpies they were tracking also had help getting their trackers off.

“While we’re familiar with magpies being intelligent and social creatures, this was the first instance we knew of that showed this type of seemingly altruistic behavior: helping another member of the group without getting an immediate, tangible reward,” Potvin wrote.


Cooperation versus altruism
According to NOVA it’s well known that magpies live in cooperative societies. This means that they live in units that help each other with the tasks of daily living, they forage for food together, raise children together, and help each other ward off predators. However, this was the first time that scientists witnessed what was an apparent act of altruism between magpies. 

Altruism is a bit different than cooperation. In cooperative societies members help each other with tasks that they all benefit from. The whole unit benefits when there is more food, or when their young are taken care of.

An act of altruism, on the other hand, is an act that only benefits the receiver. In the case of the magpies, the non-tracker magpies received no benefit from removing the trackers from their fellow birds. The act only benefited the tracker magpies. The scientists were amazed by this discovery. 

Room for skepticism
However, according to an interview with Simone Pika, a cognitive biologist at the University of Osnabruck in Germany on National Public Radio, there is some cause for skepticism. This was not a carefully controlled study meant to investigate altruism in magpies. It was simply a by-product of another (failed) study. 

There could be many other reasons for the magpies’ action, she told NPR. “It could just be that the birds themselves - they are attracted [to] the object. And so they try to go for it. They go after the harness. They pick around, and then they manage to get rid of the harness. And it has nothing to do that they really want to help the other individual.

Still, a study at Rutgers University in New Jersey has suggested that there are animals that act in altruistic ways. It is not out of the realm of possibility that these magpies were also acting altruistically, and it is certainly an interesting and exciting avenue for animal behaviorists to pursue. 

It is sometimes helpful to look to the animal kingdom for inspiration as to how to live your lives. Magpies remind people that the best societies are cooperative and that everybody needs a helping hand every once in a while.

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Tiki is a freelance writer, editor, and translator with a passion for writing stories. She believes in taking small actions to positively impact the world. She spends her free time reading, baking, creating art, and walking her rescue dog.