When magpies play scientists

This article is taken from the monthly Sciences et Avenir – La Recherche n°903, dated May 2022.

Six months of scientific work reduced to zero in less than three days! This is the setback suffered by a band of Australian magpies (Gymnorhina tibicen) to researchers at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia. The latter had developed a harness concept suitable for small and medium-sized birds, equipped with GPS sensors weighing less than 1 gram. They wanted to test this device on these passerines also called flute cassicans. “Despite testing demonstrating the strength and durability of the harness, the devices were removed minutes to hours after installation.“, explain the authors of the study published in the journal Australian Field Ornithology.

The birds have found the weak point of the device

This involved five birds gradually accustomed to coming to feed at a feeding station, then fitted with the famous harnesses. The researchers thought these magpies would then return to the station, where a magnet would release the GPS device without the need to handle them. This magnetic clasp barely 1 millimeter long was the only weak point of the device. However, a few tens of minutes after having equipped the last bird, the researchers observed an adult female pecking the harness of a juvenile standing motionless, finding the weak point and cutting it with her beak. Other magpies then carried out the same operation, and three days later the last bird was released in turn. For the researchers, this behavior demonstrates the ability of these birds to collaborate and solve problems, providing further proof of the cognitive faculties of this very social species.

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