Magpies Challenge Bird Brain Myth

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Figure 1. European magpie, Pica pica, with yellow mark [larger view].
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0060202.

Birds have been disparaged publicly as "bird brains" for so long that most people have lost the ability to view them as intelligent and sentient beings. However, a group of researchers in Germany have conducted a series of studies with several captive European magpies, Pica pica, that challenge the average person's view of birds and their cognitive abilities.

It is widely accepted in the scientific community that self-awareness is prerequisite for the development of consciousness. Previously, only mammals -- humans and several of their cousins, chimpanzees and orangutans, as well as dolphins and elephants -- were observed to have self-awareness by demonstrating that they could recognize themselves in a mirror.

However, a new study by a research group in Germany reveals that birds apparently also evolved self-recognition.

"[Our research] shows that the line leading to humans is not as special as many thought," pointed out lead researcher Helmut Prior of the Institute of Psychology at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany.

To do their research, Prior and his colleagues carried out a series of tests with five hand-raised European magpies. In one test, the researchers placed yellow or red stickers on the birds so they could only be seen in a mirror (figure 1 & figure 2);

Figure 2. Examples of the Behaviors That Were Used for Quantitative

(A) Attempt to reach the mark with the beak; (B) touching the mark area with the foot; (C) touching the breast region outside the marked area; (D) touching other parts of the body. Behaviors (A) and (B) entered the analysis as mark-directed behavior; behaviors (C) and (D) and similar actions towards other parts of the body were considered self-directed, but not related to the mark.
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0060202.

As you can see in the above image, the magpies became focused on removing the stickers after they saw them in the mirror. The birds tried to scratch the stickers off with their claws and pick them off with their beaks. After the bird succeeded in removing a sticker, these behaviors stopped.

The researchers also found that the birds ignored the stickers when they could not see their reflection in a mirror (when the backside of the mirror faced them instead of the reflective surface), or when the stickers were black in color.

These studies demonstrate that the birds not only could recognize themselves in a mirror, but they also could use that information to remove a foreign object from their feathers.

Some people think that self-awareness is a function of brain size. This is often expressed as the percentage of an animals' total body weight since otherwise, there is no realistic way to compare brain sizes between disparate taxa. Among mammals that show self-awareness, humans' brains comprise 21 percent of their total body weight, while chimpanzees' brains are only 8 percent of their total body weight, bottlenosed dolphins' brains are 9 percent of their total body weight and elephants' brains are the smallest at only 1.6 percent of their total body weight.

Compare these values to domestic housecats: their brain size is 8 percent of their total body weight, yet housecats do not convincingly demonstrate self-awareness.

Using this scale, birds have very large brains when compared to mammals. For example, the European magpie's brain consists of 31 percent of their total body weight and the brain of African grey parrots is 22.6 percent of their total body weight. Irene Pepperberg's talented talking parrot, Alex, was an African grey parrot.

In contrast, other people think that brain architecture itself is essential for the development of consciousness. Humans and other mammals possess a distinct layered brain, with an outer neocortex that is essential for higher cognitive functioning. Because birds lack a distinct neocortex, people have thought they were unable to think, therefore, they were given the misnomer, "bird brains." Yet, as numerous behavioral studies have demonstrated, birds perceive the world similarly to mammals and have similar cognitive and neural processing abilities, and are even capable of making their own tools -- a behavioral trait that nearly all mammals lack and thus, was long thought to separate humans from all other animals.

But these studies demonstrate that even though birds lack a neocortex, at least the corvids possess the ability to recognize themselves -- a necessary prerequisite for consciousness.

"This is a remarkable capability that is at least a pre-requisite of self-recognition and might play a role in perspective taking," the research team wrote in their paper.

During the previous decade, cognitive and neurobiological studies have demonstrated that birds and mammals faced similar selection pressures to develop complex cognitive abilities, resulting in the evolution of a comparable neural architecture of their forebrain association areas as well as their cognitive operations. This high degree of evolutionary convergence is especially visible for the cognitive abilities of corvids, such as magpies, and apes. By demonstrating self-recognition in the mirror, these magpies show that even the neural capacity for distinguishing self and others has evolved independently in the two vertebrate classes and that a mammalian-style neocortex is not a prerequisite for self-recognition.

"After finding this kind of intelligence in apes, many people thought it had developed once in one evolutionary line with humans at the end. The bird studies show it has developed at least twice."

[video 0:56]


Prior, H., Schwarz, A., Güntürkün, O. (2008). Mirror-Induced Behavior in the Magpie (Pica pica): Evidence of Self-Recognition. PLoS Biology, 6(8), e202. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0060202.


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Some really cool stuff just got published a few minutes ago in PLoS Biology: A cool paper: Mirror-Induced Behavior in the Magpie (Pica pica): Evidence of Self-Recognition: A crucial step in the emergence of self-recognition is the understanding that one's own mirror reflection does not represent…

I seem to recall a paper from a few years ago concerning food hiding strategies in scrub jays. These birds can tell when other scrub jays are watching them conceal food, and modify their behaviour appropriately. I can't for the life of me remember what journal it was in (not my field), but I think it was Nature or Science.

Anyway, a nice heads-up for an interesting paper, I think I'll check it out!


Wow, this is interesting. Did it mention what percentage of birds could recognise themselves in the mirror? I'm surprised it was magpies and not ravens that were the first to demonstrate self-awareness.

By chemniste (not verified) on 19 Aug 2008 #permalink

That pretty much lays it out in black and white! How come you didn't use a Pica font for this particular blog?!

Magpies (both P. pica and P hudsonica) are more than self-aware. Both of these species have been observed to have "funerals", where a dead magpie is visited by many of his neighbors. There are a couple of papers about this in the scientific literature, and lots of other observations. I witnessed one of these in Utah a few years back; it is a remarkable bit of evidence that birds have a lot of the attributes that we humans would like to think are only found in humans.

It has been suggested that rituals based on the recognition that a conspecific has died (their "spirit" has left them) are the basis of all religions. Notions of spirits and afterlives are apparently one of the few things that almost all religions have in common. So magpies might even have "religion"; one can only hope that they are not also afflicted with creationism.

By Albatrossity (not verified) on 20 Aug 2008 #permalink

I find crows, magpies, jays, etc. really fascinating,
particularly since reading the two books by Candace Savage:

The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies and Jays

Encounters with the Wise Guys of the Avian World

-- almost as much for their great photos as for the many stories.

The work described in the above post really fits
in well with the research summarized in the books.

By Neal Holtz (not verified) on 20 Aug 2008 #permalink

Corvids? Bah!

Everyone knows Keas are where the real bird brains are at.

Magpies may have gotten as far as religion, but Nestor notabilis has gotten as far as juvenile delinquency!

So magpies might even have "religion"; one can only hope that they are not also afflicted with creationism.

Amen to that, Sibling Albatrossity!

How come you didn't use a Pica font for this particular blog?!

Good one, Ian. Typography-related humor is so rare these days, and it sure beats the heck out of a joke about eating dirt.

Supposing this is true. That some magpies are actually Christian. Could we ever know this, or falsify it? What effect would it have on the science/religion debate? If, in fact, all of natural science was found to be Christian? Or on American foreign policy if Muslim? Do the magpies and ravens even go to the same church? Yet they manage to get along. Stone the crows, I just hope we can learn to be tolerant and respect our fellow corvids as Jesus would have done. QED. Amen.

Supposing this is true. That some magpies are actually Christian.

Hogwash! Magpies are smarter than that. Give them some credit, please!

By Albatrossity (not verified) on 20 Aug 2008 #permalink

humans' brains comprise 21 percent of their total body weight

Hi, I'm french, so, be indulgent if i made a mistake in translation and misunderstood what you wrote... Did you really mean, a person that has a weight of 100 kg, has also a brain that has a weight of... 21 kg?

May there's a 10 factor mistake : human brain --> 1.7 kg for 80 kg total bodyweight. looks like 2.1% instead of 21. Did you confuse per thousand and per cent?

Sorry if i misunderstood. Nice report!

Magpies are pretty cool, and I have no problem believing that birds are self aware. But really, in reference to the previous poster, the brain info seems a bit wrong. I can't imagine a magpie with a brain 31% of it's body weight would be able to even lift it's head! And do cats really have the same brain to body ratio as a chimp?

Whilst Magpies may well be self-aware, I always thought that researchers were wary of concluding that self-recognition entails self-awareness; rather, it shows that they possess a concept of self-agency. 'Self-awareness' in the human sense is surely more complex and requires stronger evidence to demonstrate.

Magpies are easier to test, but I would be curious if this can be demonstrated for crows and ravens too - they have both demonstrated tool use already, and ravens score near the top for birds in general intelligence, so having self-agency ability too would be, to make a terrible joke, another feather in their cap.

I was under the impression that the New Caledonian Crow had the most advanced tool use capabilities of any bird on record - has the mirror experiment been tried on them?