Magpies Bamboozle Scientists By Helping Each Other Remove Their GPS Trackers

The scientists were too stunned to speak.


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Every spring, magpies demonstrate their evolutionary prowess by attacking those foolish enough to walk in the shade of trees, but scientists have now discovered that the birds are even more intelligent than once suspected.

A pilot study at the University of the Sunshine Coast took animal ecologists back to the drawing board, after they learned some magpies were helping each other remove GPS trackers. That’s right — the birds have learned to help one another remove the special trackers scientists fit them with.

As surprising as that may sound, it’s actually pretty consistent with what is already known about Australian magpies. They have been previously known as intelligent social creatures that form friendships with both each other and humans, have close mother/daughter relationships, and have even been witnessed holding court in large groups.

So, it makes perfect sense that scientists want to further study the social lives of these birds. This is exactly why senior lecturer Dominique Potvin and his team fitted five magpies with specially designed magnetised trackers that weighed less than 1g and would sit on the bird’s backs.

Potvin and his team were hoping to learn where magpies travel, how far they travel, and whether they travel together. Instead, they learned that magpies have incredible problem-solving skills, when the birds teamed up in pairs to remove the GPS harnesses, some in under 10 minutes. After three days, all of the birds had their trackers removed by other magpies, including the dominant male

This is a significant discovery as it shows that the magpies in the pilot study altruistically helped one another and accepted help from one another without immediate, obvious, or tangible reward. But it also shows why pilot studies are necessary in animal research.

There’s no doubt the study team will develop less-escapable harnesses for future studies. But personally, if I witnessed a group of magpies cleverly removing GPS trackers, I would respect their privacy to avoid living in the dystopia of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.