Sneaky Magpies Outwit Scientists by Removing Tracking Devices

The trackers were supposed to track movement behaviors but instead uncovered an unusual problem-solving behavior

An image of two magpies together standing in the grass. The birds are facing each other
Magpies are highly social and live in groups of two or 12 individuals that defend, occupy, and breed cooperatively. Toby Hudson via Wikicommons under CC BY-SA 3.0

When researchers placed small GPS tracking devices on Australian magpies (Gymnorhina tibicen), they intended to learn more about the birds' movements and social dynamics. Instead, the crafty magpies teamed up to outsmart the scientists and helped each other dismantle and remove their trackers. The collaboration was an example of altruistic behavior rarely observed in birds. It provides strong evidence of problem-solving and cooperation among the social species, reports Gizmodo’s George Dvorsky.

The research published in Australian Field Ornithology is the first to show birds of the same species purposefully removing GPS trackers. When one animal tries to free another from a dangerous situation with no direct benefit to itself, scientists call this sort of cooperation rescue behavior, Gizmodo explains. Rescue behavior has been seen in species like ratswild boars, and other birds like Seychelles warblers, who are known to help each other remove sticky seeds that can impair flight and cause mortality. The study authors suggest this paper is the first to document rescue behavior in magpies.

Initially, researchers planned the pilot study to learn more about how the highly intelligent species socializes; how far they travel; if they had any patterns or schedules of movement; and how age, sex, or rank affected their daily activities, explained study author Dominique Potvin, an animal ecologist at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia, for the Conversation. The study was also designed to test the effectiveness of a new tracking device that would fit on medium-to-small birds. The tracker would also charge and download data wirelessly without needing to recapture the birds.

Before the experiment went awry, the team outfitted five magpies with a small backpack-like harness attached to the tracking device. The trackers weighed less than one gram and were attached to a rigid harness that could only be released with a magnet. Once the trackers were on, researchers could lure the previously trained birds back to an outdoor ground "feeding station" where the trackers could charge wirelessly, and the team could download the data, reports the Conversation.

However, within ten minutes of placing the tracking device on the fifth experimentee, one clever female magpie without a tracker began picking at the harness of another younger bird, Gizmodo reports. Eventually, the female bird succeeded, and the behavior was repeated in the following hours. By day three of the experiment, the magpies removed a tracker off one dominant male.

Researchers are unsure if the same female magpie removed all the harnesses or if multiple birds collaborated to help. Still, it is an example of rescue behavior since the birds had to willingly help others and accept aid as well, per the Conversation. The team suspects the birds may have used their beak to snip and pull at the harness.

According to the Conversation, magpies are highly social and live in groups from 2 to 12 individuals that defend, occupy, and breed cooperatively. Previously, researchers have linked animals living in large groups with increased cognitive ability for problem solving, especially magpies. Cooperation like this boosts an individual’s chances of survival within a group.  

While the research team did not expect to get these results, it shows the need for small-scale pilot studies so researchers can plan and resolve unexpected issues, per Gizmodo. In this case, it is possible the birds perceived the tracker as a type of parasite that needed to be removed, so researchers interested in studying highly social species like magpies should consider this when planning experiments.

“Just like magpies, we scientists are always learning to problem solve. Now we need to go back to the drawing board to find ways of collecting more vital behavioral data to help magpies survive in a changing world,” writes Potvin in the Conversation.

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