Magpies reflect on a newly discovered intellectual prowess

A A A

They may have a brain the size of a pea but magpies have been shown to possess the intellectual prowess necessary to recognise themselves in a mirror – a feat that, until now, has only been seen in humans, apes, elephants and dolphins.

Self-recognition is considered to be one of the hallmarks of a highly evolved brain so it has come as a surprise to find that the magpie can see its own reflection for what it is. A study has shown that magpies can recognise themselves in a mirror as well as any chimpanzee, despite being separated from the mammals and their highly developed brain by some 300 million years of evolutionary history.

The findings may come as no surprise to anyone who has watched a magpie's seemingly sly and arrogant behaviour in the garden, where they frequently raid the nests of smaller birds and are infamous "thieves" that steal shiny objects to adorn their own nests.

Helmut Prior, of Goethe University in Frankfurt, said the findings demonstrate that the ability to recognise a reflection as yourself, rather than seeing it as another individual, does not necessarily depend on the sophisticated mammalian brain. "Our findings provide the first evidence of mirror self-recognition in a non-mammalian species," he said. "They suggest that essential components of human self-recognition have evolved independently in different vertebrate classes with a separate evolutionary history."

Dr Prior and colleagues from Ruhr-University Bochum tested the magpie's self-discriminatory powers in experiments involving five magpies marked with coloured dots on their throats, which could only be seen by looking at their own reflection.

Two of the magpies – named Gertie and Goldie – quickly learnt that the image they could see in a mirror placed in their cages was of themselves and tried to dislodge the coloured dots they could see on their throat feathers.

The "mark test" is frequently used as an indicator of self-recognition in animals and young children as, if done properly, there is only one way the individual can see that the mark is on themselves rather than someone else.

"A crucial step in the emergence of self-recognition is the understanding that one's own mirror reflection does not represent another individual but oneself," said Dr Prior, whose study is published in the online journal Public Library of Science (PLos) Biology. "Mirror self-recognition has been shown in apes and, recently, in dolphins and elephants ... Using the mark test we obtained evidence for mirror self-recognition in the European magpie, Pica pica. This finding shows that elaborate cognitive skills arose independently in corvids [the crow family] and primates, taxonomic groups with an evolutionary history that diverged about 300 million years ago."

Other scientists have already shown that some crows show exceptional intellectual skills, such as using and making simple tools that are used for food foraging.

The relative intelligence of magpies has traditionally presented a problem to gamekeepers and conservationists seeking to control their numbers. Their wariness makes them difficult to shoot, so the most widely used form of population control is a larsen trap, which is baited with a magpie from outside a bird's normal social circle. Dr Prior added: "In addition to showing social understanding during competition for food, magpies are curious and prone to approach new situations, making them ideally suited for an experiment that requires spontaneous interaction with a new and puzzling context."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before