Magpies aren’t smart by nature, but nurture

It’s well known that Australian magpies aren’t your average bird brain. They’re actually quite intelligent. But new research shows that they’re not necessarily born this way.

A magpie and fledgling
A magpie and fledgling. Credit: © Lizzie Speechley.

Magpies (Gymnorhina tibicen) are closely related to crows and ravens – also known for their smarts. Like corvids, magpies have been observed problem solving. They have complex songs and have been observed to recall up to 30 human faces – which they can remember for a long time.

So you know when they do attack, it is personal.

New research published in the journal Royal Society Open Science shows, however, that this intellect is not just down to genetics, but is more to do with how fledgling magpies are brought up.

Researchers compared wild Western Australian magpie mothers with their offspring in associative learning tests. They found a lack of evidence to support inherited intelligence.

The test involved a wooden block with 2 holes drilled in it, covered by coloured PVC lids – different shades of the same colour. Underneath one of the lids a tasty reward was hidden.

Magpies were first allowed to test both lids to see what was underneath. But in subsequent tests, they were only allowed to test one lid before the apparatus was removed.

“An individual was considered to have passed the test when they selected the rewarded colour shade in 10 out of 12 consecutive trials (representing a significant deviation from random binomial probability),” the authors say.

The study did find a link between intelligence of young magpies and their social environment.

“[C]omplementing previous findings, we find that at 300 days post-fledging, individuals raised in larger groups passed the test in fewer trials compared with individuals from small groups,” they write. “Our results highlight the pivotal influence of the social environment on cognitive development.”

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