Magpies Are Smarter In Large Groups

Australia’s favourite and most feared bird just got a little scarier

A new study run by the University of Western Australia and the University of Exeter in England has found that magpies are smarter in large groups. The study also found smart female magpies had greater reproductive success. The researchers suggest that living in a complex social group could play a part in the evolution of intelligence.

The researchers inspected the cognitive performance of 14 different sized groups of Western Australian magpies (Cractoicus Tibicen Dorsalis) in Perth. Dr Ben Aston, along with Dr Amanda Ridley and Dr Alex Thornton examined each magpie, testing them with four cognitive tasks that focused on inhibitory control, associative learning, reversal learning and spatial memory.

The tasks involved detour –reaching, where the magpies had to find hidden food in a see-through container, two foraging tasks, testing associate learning where food was hidden in different coloured containers and a task that tested memory when food was hidden in the same place each time.

“The challenges of living in complex social groups have long been seen as drivers of cognitive evolution, however evidence to support this is contentious, and has recently been called into question,” Dr Ashton explained.

He explained that it was possible differences in energy intake and attention to different tasks may affect each bird’s cognitive performance. For this reason, the bird’s weight, how efficient it forages and inability to engage with tasks were taken into account when processing the results.

“Our results suggest that the social environment plays a key role in the development of cognition,” Dr Ashton said.

“They also suggest a positive relationship between female cognitive performance and reproductive success indicating there is the potential for natural selection to act on cognition.”

“Together, these results support the idea that the social environment plays an important role in cognitive evolution.”

The study is one of the first to conduct a large-scale cognitive test on populations of wild birds.

Lead Image:Australian magpi,  Katarina Christenson

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