One Giant Leap for Birdkind: A Magpie Looks in the Mirror and Recognizes Itself

By Eliza Strickland | August 19, 2008 12:24 pm

magpieSome clever magpies can recognize themselves in a mirror, leading researchers to include them among the ranks of self-aware animals—an elite group that is generally thought to include only humans, great apes, bottlenose dolphins, and elephants. This new study suggests that a brain capable of surprisingly sophisticated intelligence developed in a few birds long after they split from the mammalian evolutionary tree, about 300 million years ago.

Says lead researcher Helmut Prior: “It shows that the line leading to humans is not as special as many thought…. 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”[Reuters].

The researchers tested the magpies’ abilities by placing a bright yellow or red mark on the feathers just below their beaks, so the dots could only be seen by looking in the mirror. Several of the birds reacted by standing in front of a mirror and trying to scratch the stickers off with their claws. Black stickers placed on the birds’ bodies did not elicit the same response. When no mirror was present, the magpies took no notice of the stickers [BBC News].

The findings, reported in the journal PLoS Biology, contradict the notion that only higher mammals with a neocortex brain area (the source of conscious thought and reasoning) could develop rudimentary self-awareness. The new study suggests that magpies and other social birds that possess large brains with expanded cortical-like areas should display at least some level of self-recognition, remarks Irene Pepperberg of Brandeis University [Science News]. Pepperberg had remarkable results in studying thinking and communication with an African gray parrot named Alex, and other researchers have found surprising intelligence in crows.

For more on birds’ impressive abilities and senses, take a look at the DISCOVER article “Birds Navigate Using Magnetic Compass-Vision.”

Image: Helmut Prior, Goethe University

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Mind & Brain
  • leo Sehler

    Do you suppose we could get this Magpie to run for the Senate?

  • http://www.cde.co.za Hein du Plessis

    The magpie recognises an image that responds to what he does – that’s a long shot from knowing his its own reflection!

  • Wes Havard

    Could it be that Magpies groom each other and the bird in the mirror is one that needs grooming. The bird then moves instinctively getting a positive response in its own behavior?

  • tx4

    Magpies don’t talk, but Alex did. When put in font of a mirror and asked who’s in the mirror, his response was “Alex”.

  • http://TwoSistersArtandSoul Lisette Root

    Perhaps birds see themselves more often than we think, in a pond or a puddle perhaps?

  • Brian

    @Wes,

    I don’t think so. An existing grooming behaviour directed at others, should still be directed at “the other magpie” (i.e. the mirror). It would never be self-directed.

    The mirror test has been performed on several species that I know of, including dolphins, chimpanzees, and several others. Animals that fail the test invariably try to interact with the mirror itself, as though the image of the animal were a real animal. How they react depends upon how they perceive the “other animal”. Some attack the mirror, some try to communicate or play, scare it off, or whatnot. Often these behaviours are highly repetitive.

    Animals that pass the test always begin self-directed behaviours, like examining themselves in the mirror, testing different positions, and so forth. They will spend special time examing parts of their bodies they may never have seen before, like their face.

    That’s why the mirror test is so powerful. In fact, from what I understand, it’s commonly accepted that passing the mirror test means the animal has a sense of self, a conscious self-image. Such a creature does not merely react to external stimuli.

  • http://richleebruce.com Richard Bruce

    The article suggests that this behavior has developed at least twice, once for apes and men, and once for birds. This is a little conservative, it would appear that the behavior has evolved at least four times. Dolphins and Elephants are not closely related to apes and man, or to each other. The closest relatives of dolphins and other whales is the hippo. The closest relative to the elephants are the relatives of the sea cow. The three mammal groups elephants, dolphins, and apes and man, split from each other before the non avian dinosaurs died from the meteor or comet at the end of the Cretaceous.

  • NxL

    The true test of any hypothesis and experiment is repitition. If this test can be repeated then the avians (corvids – magpies, crows, ravens, etc.) will be placed along side the mammals (apes, elephants, and cetaceans). To bad reptiles were an epic fail, however in a few hundred million years, relatives of snails, the cephalopods, may pass the mirror test. Too bad no one will be around to administer it.

  • Carolyn

    For years I have been feeding magpies in my yard. I know they are extremely intelligent and have an expansive vocabulary. When I watch them with thier young it amazes me on the range of calls, and the pitch they use to relay detailed instruction or scolding. If birds developed a test around thier intelligence, how they’d judge the intelligence of man? They can’t navigate – they must be lower on the intelligence chart.

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