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Magpies have outwitted scientists by helping each other remove tracking devices
When we attached tiny, backpack-like tracking devices to five Australian magpies for a pilot study, we didn’t expect to discover an entirely new social behaviour rarely seen in birds.

Our goal was to learn more about the movement and social dynamics of these highly intelligent birds, and to test these new, durable and reusable devices. Instead, the birds outsmarted us. As our new research paper explains, the magpies began showing evidence of cooperative “rescue” behaviour to help each other remove the tracker.

The harness was tough, with only one weak point where the magnet could function. To remove the harness, one needed that magnet, or some really good scissors. During our pilot study, we found out how quickly magpies team up to solve a group problem. Within 10 minutes of fitting the final tracker, we witnessed an adult female without a tracker working with her bill to try and remove the harness off of a younger bird. Within hours, most of the other trackers had been removed. By day three, even the dominant male of the group had its tracker successfully dismantled.

‘The Birds Outsmarted Us’: Magpies Help Each Other Remove Scientists’ Tracking Devices
New research published in Australian Field Ornithology describes an experiment that didn’t go as planned. A small group of Australian magpies (Cracticus tibicen), after being fitted with harness-like tracking devices, unilaterally decided to opt out; the scientists watched as the birds helped each other remove the devices, in what they say is a potential sign of altruism and strong evidence of problem solving among these highly social and intelligent creatures.

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Image courtesy AFP via Getty Images

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