A group of Australian ecologists knew magpies are a highly social species, but when the songbirds joined forces to thwart the researchers’ plans to track them, they discovered that the birds were far more altruistic and coordinated than expected.
The researchers from Queensland wanted to collect data from Australian magpies using mini GPS trackers—a common tool used in animal research—to gather information such as their patterns or schedule throughout the day. They also sought to investigate how age, sex or dominance rank affect their activities.
But within minutes of attaching the trackers to the birds, they pecked them off. This was captured on video until the birds left the area.
“This behaviour demonstrates that magpies have both cooperation and a moderate level of problem-solving,” the report published in the Australian Field Ornithology said.
Animal ecologist and co-author of the study Dominique Potvin observed that one magpie would snap another bird’s tracker.
“A magpie that didn’t have a tracker on came up to one of the individuals that did and started pecking at it,” she told AAP.
“We were thinking, ‘what’s going on? Are they trying to get it off? And then we were thinking, ‘Oh, it’s really hard to get these things off. There’s no way it’ll be able to do it’.”
Tracking studies using devices attached to animals are common and bird tracking has been focused on species such as seabirds and waterfowl, which have not displayed high levels of cooperation, social structure or problem-solving required to remove trackers as the magpies did in this study.
“The motions they were doing, it was clear, targeted, like, ‘I’m going to take this giant thing off you’,” Potvin said.
“They either had to show tremendous tenacity or problem-solving by doing a range of different behaviours and snipping at different points, to be able to get it off.”
The researchers were so impressed with the behaviour that they decided to see if they could unearth documented cases of animals taking trackers off their companions.
“We found there wasn’t anything in the literature. This was actually a completely new behaviour in a completely new situation, which was kind of cool,” Potvin said.
Researchers have previously identified that Australian magpies can recognise and remember up to 100 people, which explains why Australians often find themselves targeted by the birds which can be highly territorial during the breeding season, also known as the swooping season in Australia.