Letter from South Dakota: In Badlands, magpies bring intelligence to the table

MinnPost video by Ron MeadorSallie’s first close encounter with the black-billed magpie came only a few weeks ago, as we paused for lunch at Badlands National Park.

Though she has been a birder for decades, Sallie’s first close encounter with the black-billed magpie came only a few weeks ago, as we paused for lunch at Badlands National Park.

A pair swooped overhead and then lower, flashing blue and black and white against the dull slumps of ancient seabed, finally perching in a short, leafless tree.

Sallie adjusted her binoculars. I raised my arm in imitation of a branch and waited.

This was a trick learned from Rolf Peterson, the biologist known for his study of wolf/moose interaction on Isle Royale. During a trailside talk to a group of journalists one afternoon, a gray jay began to chatter in a tree overhanging Peterson’s head. He paused, sighed, raised  an arm and – wow! – it dropped onto the newfound perch.

We assumed that Peterson had trained this particular jay, or that maybe a steady stream of hikers and campers had desensitized the birds of Isle Royale to the risks of human presence. Not so.

Co-evolution with humans?

As the jay ate bits of apple from his hand, Peterson explained that this particular species is innately unfearful, though not unwary, around humans and may even have developed an instinctive regard for us as a food source – a species that brings meals into the forest and leaves the crumbs behind. Among the gray jay’s many common names is “camp robber.”

I had repeated Peterson’s demonstration for Sallie when we encountered gray jays on a kayak trip in the Rossport Islands of Lake Superior a few years back. Now I wanted to try it with their bigger, brighter and probably bolder cousins in the Badlands.

The author interviewing a gray jay.
Photo by Tom Henry/Toledo Blade
The author interviewing a gray jay.

The magpies came closer, settling directly overhead, and watched us as intently as we were watching them. After a while I turned my palm up and I offered a piece of twig I thought might look like food. Intelligent birds that they are, this lame maneuver drove them away.

They disappeared into a huge nest at the treetop and waited, out of sight, until we had unpacked our picnic lunch. In an instant they were at the table and sharing our corn cakes, first from the table surface and then from our hands, leaving us to wonder:

Who trained whom here?

Encounter with intelligence

I’m an intermittent birder at best, and might be a nonbirder still if not for the black-billed magpie.

Because most of my life has been lived east of Edina, and most magpies in America live west of the Missouri River, I was nearing 50 before my own first meeting with these spectacular birds. And beauty wasn’t as big a draw as behavior.

It was a morning in early September and I was eating breakfast on the patio of a cabin at the edge of Boulder, Colo. Out of the blue – such an apt expression here – came two and then four and finally six magpies, each taking a strategic spot amid the dishes or on vacant  chairs.

I was stunned speechless, immobile. Not the magpies. Jabbing with their bills, as if for emphasis, they began to strut and yak-yak-yak in a speech-like pattern I took to mean, “How’s about a piece of that toast, then?”

I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to feed them because I didn’t want to encourage them to stay or to return. I had no idea what they were or where from, native birds or just passing through, big as pigeons but muscular and brilliant, with tails as long as their bodies.

I wanted to take their picture but figured that if I went inside for a camera, they would grab the toast and run — perhaps never to return. And, anyway, I didn’t want to break a connection that somehow felt intelligent, like an eye-to-eye exchange of curiosity and comprehension flowing both ways.

For maybe a full minute they seemed to study me and the food, back and forth, assessing me as a threat, then communicating their apparently optimistic findings to one another and a stream of new arrivals, which eventually grew to include another 15 gathered on the patio wall and cabin roof.

Then they  were dabbling in the water glass and grabbing for the toast. I lifted a large, cloth napkin to wave them away. They rose a few feet and settled back down.

We repeated this for a few cycles until they decided they didn’t really need to budge any more, at which point I gathered up the plates and backed through the screen door.

Discoveries of animal ability

As a child I learned to interpret animal behavior through an overlay of human characteristics, imagining that their actions arose from a mix of emotions, thoughts, learning and associations much like our own intelligence, only simpler.

As a college student I was taught to reject the notion of animal “intelligence” – outside of apes and maybe whales – as nothing more than our fanciful projection, fairy tales that lead us to misunderstand animals by seeking to understand them  in human terms. Birds, like rats, could learn to move a lever to get some chow, and that’s about it.

This is a dogma that has been losing ground steadily over my lifetime, and for me the retreat began with the Colorado magpies.

Having  driven me inside to finish my eggs and toast, this encounter next moved me to take Bernd Heinrich’s “Mind of the Raven” off the shelf and begin reading of his experiences with still another cousin of the magpies and jays. Here’s intelligence for you:

Heinrich’s ravens, encountering a piece of string tied to a perch at the top and a piece of salami at the bottom, hopped onto the perch and drew up the meat, using their bills to pull the string upward and their feet to hold it fast between tugs.

They did this without training, without observing it done by another bird — without much trial and error, even. Amazingly, it took six efforts for Heinrich to publish these findings in an academic journal; reviewers kept rejecting it because this clear example of problem-solving cognition could not be reconciled with accepted constructs of animal behavior.

Brains as big as ours, proportionally

Today the birds we group as corvids – ravens, crows, rooks, jays, nutcrackers … more than 120 species in all – are routinely classed with primates and cetaceans (dolphins and whales) as animals displaying advanced cognition. And since the 1940s, at least, biologists have recognized a fundamental braininess in corvids, according to Heinrich.

A Swiss zoologist, Adolphe Portman, calculated brain volumes for many types of birds and found that corvids as a group averaged 15 on his scale, while perching birds in general ranged from 4 to 8 (ravens, the largest corvid, weighed in at 19). More recently, scientists have noted that these calculations place corvids alongside humans, apes and whales in terms of the ratio between brain volume and overall size.

Just four years ago, magpies made news in the science sections by demonstrating an ability to (a) recognize themselves in mirrors and (b) use information from their reflections in a way that had previously been seen only in a few “higher level” mammals.

Researchers marked magpies with a small, bright, stick-on dot placed just below the head, where it couldn’t be seen directly. But it was clearly visible in a mirror, and having seen it there, the birds tried to remove the dot with bill and feet.

Until this experiment, self-recognition behavior at this level had been demonstrated in orangutans and some (but not all) chimpanzees. Gorillas and gibbons were among the many primates and other animals who couldn’t seem to get it, either (the full paper is available here in PDF.)

I was thinking of this research as I reviewed video clips of our picnic with the Badlands magpies.They seemed happy enough with the crackers and bits of corn cake we offered, but they also kept battering at a sealed bag of tortilla chips.

What explains that? I suppose the most likely explanation is that the birds were matching this package to others remembered from previous picnics they’d invaded. That’s what the behaviorists would say.

On the other hand, is it possible that a bird capable of comprehending its reflection in a mirror is also capable of recognizing Tostitos in a photograph? I don’t know.

But if next month we see a study proving that magpies not only understand the picture but can also read the nutrition labeling – and respond with a chattering vocalization translatable as “Oh, what the hell” – I won’t be totally surprised.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Lance Groth on 11/28/2012 - 01:21 pm.

    Parrots too

    You can add parrots to the list of intelligent birds, and not just the big ones. Having lived with both cockatiels, a feisty little Senegal, and an African Grey, I can tell you their level of awareness, intelligence and ability to communicate (not so much in “parroting” human speech, but nonverbal forms of communication) are quite extraordinary.

    I tend to think this extends to many more species, however. For instance, chickadees employ their trademark “dee-dee-dee” in a rather complex code that is used (at the least) to communicate the current threat level in the immediate area. The more “dees” vocalized in a string, the more immediate and urgent the threat level. A person out mowing the lawn might warrant a simple “dee-dee”. A cat prowling for a meal might get a “dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee”. Further, other bird species are aware of the code, and pay attention when the chickadees are alarmed.

    As a psych major back in the 70’s, I never had much use for Skinner and behaviorists in general. Sure, operant conditioning is useful for behavioral training, but as a theory it misses the entire concept of “mind”, which animals certainly possess. They are not just carbon-based machines, any more than we are. It is only human hubris which has people believing they are qualitatively different than other animals. Tool using hands with opposable thumbs, and highly complex language, that’s the difference (and we probably don’t have much, if anything, on cetaceans in the language department).

    Of course, it is harder to eat and otherwise “use” other species if one realizes that there is a thinking, feeling being in there.

  2. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 11/28/2012 - 10:20 pm.

    Minnesota magpies!

    I somehow came to believe that magpies were either a European bird or a bird that is i the far west. Since the beginning of 2012, I’ve seen two black-billed magpies in northern Minnesota. One was near Red Lake, Minnesota and the other I saw on October 29 outside of Bemidji. I couldn’t believe my eyes, like they were parrots or something. They are a startling and gorgeous bird in flight.

  3. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 11/29/2012 - 08:04 am.

    The Whiskey Jack and ever, the Crow…

    The Gray Jay or Whiskey Jack of Northern Minnesota woods must be related indirectly to the Magpie…highly intelligent, food hoarder with little fear of humans.

    The Crow too is one bright bird with a memory that never forgets…many stories to tell on its persistent morning greeting when one opens the back door in the morning perusing our garden and viewing the big lake beyond, for here’s ‘Crow’ waiting in the same tree where it previously greeted our now -dead dog Diego…the two who chased each other from tree to tree and through the dune path. Was great exercise for then dog and like to assume it’s the same crow greets me now…

    Or could it be a younger crow now, who has inherited stories of Diego’s ‘companion’ ; Elder One, recalling their morning runs through the garden?

    Yes I can assume/imagine Elder Crow remembering those past adventures as Young Crow ‘listens’ and establishes his place in the scheme of things; same tree, same greeting as door opens and the “caw-caw” is received with a “fine morning to you too!” in return…

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