Posts Tagged ‘Corvids’

Mirrors and Magpies

August 20, 2008

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.

Magpie with Yellow Sticker Affixed

Magpie with Yellow Sticker Affixed

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.


April 9, 2008


The evidence continues to mount that calling someone a bird brain is not an insult. The BBC has this story about two Rooks — European and Asian members of the corvid family, as are jays, crows and ravens — and their problem solving capacity. In the experiment two Rooks quickly learned that they needed to simultaneously pull on two separate strings to move food into their cage. If they pulled only at one string or did not pull on both at the same time the string pulled loose and the food remained outside the cage. The birds learned this just as rapidly as did chimpanzees, those distant relatives of ours usually thought to be the brightest members of non-human species.

I am sorry to say that you have to click on this link to go to the BBC site to watch the video. It is possible that someone more web-savvy could have moved the video to this page but I haven’t had my second cup of coffee yet.

But you can listen to rooks. Rooks calling

But for other videos of Rooks, you’ll have to decamp from this blog and visit this site which someone smarter than I could probably have pasted on this page.

For all the other evidence we’ve accumulated at the Fat Finch you can click on our “Bird Brain” or the “Crows and Ravens” category over on the right of this page.

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