Not many beings on this planet can look in a mirror and realize they are seeing an image of themselves. Even humans need a few years before we figure it out. Orangutans, Chimpanzees and probably dolphins and elephants can do it but, until recently, that was about it as far as we knew. Even Border Collies, widely acknowledged as some of the smartest dogs, think that is an entirely different dog in the mirror. They try to herd it.
Now comes news that we at the top of the mammalian food chain aren’t the only ones who look in mirrors and see ourselves.
Magpies are corvids, members of the same family as crows, ravens, jays and nutcrackers. That means they’re smart. So smart in fact that they spontaneously recognize mirror images of themselves — as mirror images of themselves.
How do we know this? We don’t speak Magpie and they don’t speak Human. So, scientists placed stickers on the bodies of Magpies in positions that the Magpies could only see in a mirror. When no mirror was present the Magpies did not notice the stickers. When a mirror was present , they removed the stickers from their bodies, without bothering to try to remove them from the mirror image first. They knew that was only a reflection and went after the real thing.
As the BBC puts it, the experiment was, “the first time self-recognition has been observed in a non-mammal.” (I have a prejudice against exclamation points, but it seems to me that sentence deserved one.)
We’ll have more to say about this experiment and its implications for our view of cortex-free intelligence and about social cooperation in other species in a subsequent post. In the meantime, you can read the report of the experiment and watch additional videos of the Magpies at work. Here is one of the videos from the experiment.
Thanks to the authors of the study, Helmut Prior, Ariane Schwarz,and Onur Güntürkün for sharing their report, photos, and videos with us laypeople.