Thanks for the Memories

Black-billed MagpieAs a naturalist, I pride myself in my knack for noticing the beauty in the most mundane of things, from rocks and lichen to a leaf on the ground, to pigeons wheeling about an old warehouse. Still, sometimes I fall into the trap of glazing over something I see everyday.

Magpies are one of those things. When doing bird counts or other surveys, I’ll notice them, but it’s a passing glance and a quick mark of ‘BBMA’ in the notebook that is then quickly forgotten. I’m actually quite embarrassed by this, because magpies are truly remarkable birds.

Part of the corvid family, along with jays, ravens and crows, magpies are changelings and rogues. Their dapper, pied plumage give them almost a formal look that seems befitting of the solemn shadows of the winter forest. Then they flit out into the open and the sunlight transforms them into a dazzling creature, shimmering with greens, blues and reds, like the twinkling lights of last week’s Christmas tree. The structure of their plumage refracts the light, revealing the colours hidden beneath the surface.

That’s not all these birds hide. There’s also a brain under those feathers agile enough to rival the great apes and cetaceans. Like the rest of its family, magpies are not your typical bird brains. Firstly, their brain-to-body mass ratio is actually about the same as that of chimpanzees and dolphins and only just slightly less than that of humans. They possess episodic memory, being able to remember not only where they hid their latest food find, but when they stashed it.  If my knack for constantly losing my keys and pencils is any indication, they might actually be swifter than your average human

Having a good memory is an excellent foundation on which to build intellect. Remembering that the local dog likes to chase birds means that if you bring a friend the next time, one can lure the dog away while the other steals some of its dinner, switching off so everyone gets a turn. Memory allows you to be innovative. If you can remember what does and doesn’t work each time to try something, it’s easier to come up with new ideas.

Magpies are definitely one of the foremost innovators of the avian world, using an array of complex social cues to communicate knowledge of things like resource locations and tool use through generations. Most remarkably, they also appear to be able to remember themselves. These pied pipers are one of the few non-human species who have been shown to pass the ‘mirror test’. It’s an easy test; researchers put a brightly coloured dot under the bird’s beak, in a place where they can only see it if they look in a mirror. More often than not, the magpie will see the dot and try and get it off.

So what does this sense of self mean for a bird? How does it affect their relationship with the world around them? Until we learn to speak Magpie, I doubt we’ll ever know. Still, just taking the time to watch them can yield a lot of insight, whether we completely understand it or not. I know I will always be mystified by one memorable morning when it was revealed to me to just how aware these birds are.

When I was teaching vertebrate diversity labs, our instructor took my fellow TA and I for a walk on campus with a stuffed magpie under his arm. In a clearing, he placed it on the ground. I then watched, astounded, as the local birds quickly began to assemble, edging closer to their fallen compatriot, circling the study skin while bobbing their heads up an down in what could only be described as a display of respect, much like what is observed in elephants. I know many of you are probably thinking that they were just eyeing up their next meal, but they made no move to tear at the carcass and I’ve now seen this behaviour several times with my classes.

Throughout of my scientific career, I’ve been warned against the dangers of ‘anthropomorphism’, of ascribing ‘human’ traits and motivations to the animals we study. While I do realize different brains process things differently, I think we do ourselves a disservice by maintaining that we are somehow fundamentally different than the rest of the organisms we share this world with.  Evolution has been working from the same box of crayons for millennia, remixing the colours as situations dictate. I personally feel it’s rather arrogant of us to think we’re the only ones out there who can claim awareness. So, in this season of resolutions, I’m going to remind myself to take a little more time to appreciate those everyday companions that are so easily taken for granted, to make an effort to see the world through their eyes. I think I could learn a lot from them.


10 thoughts on “Thanks for the Memories

  1. What a striking bird ! How far east are they found ? I’ve certainly not seen one here in Nova Scotia, actually I never saw one in Ontario either.

    Happy New Year.

    • Thanks Sybil. They are pretty neat, aren’t they. They’re actually the bird I get the most calls about to identify, especially when someone sees them in sunlight. I get a call like ‘I saw this multicoloured bird with a really long tail!’
      I don’t think they make it much further east than Manitoba. In fact, when I was a kid, they were actually quite rare. The first one I ever saw was in Calgary and I was entranced.

      In the last 20 years, they’ve been moving steadily east and now they’re very common here in the province. Ours is a subspecies of the European magpie (Pica pica), which can be found all over Europe and Asia. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next 20 years, they head further east. They can be hard on smaller songbird populations, however, as they will feed opportunistically on nestlings. Still, an amazing bird.

      Thanks for stopping by. Happy New Year!

    • Thanks, Adrian.
      It wasn’t until I started writing this that I became aware of people’s dislike for magpies. It is surprising in some ways, but in others, I sort of expect it. We seem to grow to hate that which is familiar and makes its living in many ways off of our excess (i.e. rats, cockroaches, crows, etc.). I think it doesn’t help that they eat baby birds. Still, a lot of people look at them with wonder… and then call me to help them identify what they’re looking it 😉
      Happy New Year!

  2. Hi Heather, Happy New Year!
    You know, I’m really glad you broached this topic ’cause I’ve always hated that most people have zero belief in the natural intelligence of animals. Why must man be the only one with a brain: lording it o’er all at the top of the food-chain, “protecting” those poor, dumb animals? The prey/preditor balance is a fact of life (cycles) and they’d all be a lot happier if we’d just stop our presumptuous meddling.
    Man is not better, a mere link in the chain, same as all the rest… Too bad we’re the only ones dumb enough to foul our own nest, eh? (On second thought, I guess that’d make us the weakest link):

    • Happy belated New Year, Deb!
      Sorry for the delay in replying. I’ve been settling into a teaching position that has been eating up most of my time.
      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I agree; we’re just another link in the chain and sometimes I wonder if we aren’t a little weak 🙂

  3. Wonderful and thoughtful post, Heather. Couldn’t agree more with your ideas on the arrogance that would suggest no other animal species have a sense of awareness to rival our own. Surely if our own awareness was so unique and astonishing we might have used it by now to actually learn something from other animals, like how swiftly increasing populations will diminish the ability of a given ecosystem to support its inhabitants or how animals so often maintain the integrity and health of their environment.

    I’m blessed to be able to see the European magpie from my window most days as one or two of them shift about the brambles and elderberry bushes. And as I’ve often said, if it wasn’t so common it would surely be regarded as a tropical beauty that we’re lucky to have grace these northern shores. But your opening sentence says so much – to use that awareness we’ve been gifted to see the beauty in the common as well as the rare. Thanks for this evocation of a marvellously intelligent and striking bird.

    • Thanks, Julian. I think some of us are learning from animals. A lot of human advances can be traced back to animal innovation, but there’s still a lot to learn. I completely agree with your assessment of the magpie’s beauty. I often feel that way about mallards too. Magpies are actually the bird I get the most calls about. Usually it starts with “I saw this amazing bird, with a long tail and brilliant wings.” That’s when I remember just how remarkable they are.

  4. I could have sworn I left a comment here! I came back because I couldn’t remember the term “episodic memory”…and wanted to. (I think that’s irony, no?) I don’t quite remember what I thought I wrote either, but it had to do with your admonition to pay as much attention to the common as to the rare.

    I’m very familiar with the magpie from other localities but they are indeed rare up here. However, like the crow, they have become more common in the past few years for reasons of habitat or weather change perhaps – I don’t know. The grey jay (locally called whiskey jack) and the raven are the most overlooked and even maligned birds around here but I do appreciate them very much. The jay for its reliability – sit down in the bush and there will be a jay or two come to check out your menu – and the raven for its amazing talents and its entertainment value.

    As always, a delightful read and wonderfully informative post accompanied by an inspiring image. Thanks, Heather.

    • I did get a bit of a chuckle from your comment Cindy. Glad I could refresh your memory.

      I sometimes forget how much father north you are and yes, you wouldn’t expect magpies up there. I imagine they’ve been moving north with increasing human settlement. We also have the grey jays (I do know them as whiskey jacks) and ravens and they always make my day. I’ve been lucky to have had some interesting encounters with both species. Their innovation and curiosity never ceases to amaze me.

      Glad you enjoyed the post. It’s always fun coming up with new subjects to explore.

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