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Is This The Most Intelligent Bird On the Planet ?
Known throughout much of Western Europe as a thief and harbinger of death, the Eurasian Magpie (Pica pica) probably ranks among one of the most maligned birds on the continent.
From ancient nursery rhymes such as One for Sorrow, Two for Joy to Rossini’s opera La Gazza Ladra this common member of the corvid or crow family repeatedly gets bad press in our world of folklore and mythology. A magpie is even fingered for thievery in one of the more recent Adventures of Tintin (see below), that famously popular young Belgian cartoon sleuth who spends his life hunting down perpetrators of crime.
This widely-spread black and white bird has an equally sinister reputation here in France, with the exception of the historic west central region of Poitou (Poitiers is the capital of the region), where heath and laurel are tied in high trees to honour the magpie (or pie in French) whose sharp eyes and jarring call are reputed to have warned of the approach of wolves and armed men. In the rest of France they are referred to as ‘pie voleuse’ (thieving magpies) which is also a common insult whilst to ‘bavarde comme une’ pie is to talk constantly or to be a chatterbox.
It is a different matter in Korea and China where magpies are regarded in a much more positive light and are associated with good fortune and happiness. One reason for the anomaly in differing cultural beliefs about this bird is thought to be its colour. In the west the bird’s predominantly black plumage is often associated with death and evil where as in China, black is more associated with water so does not have the same connotations.
The magpie is also considered to be a thief because there is a belief that they are attracted to shiny objects which they steal and carry back to their nests. Tests performed recently by the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom however, found no evidence that would substantiate this theory.
What we are beginning to learn about magpies however, is that they are smart, very smart in fact, and that they exhibit some elaborate social behaviours. Both the parrot and corvid families (crows, rooks, magpies and jays) have long been known to be intelligent, but just how intelligent the magpie is has only recently been studied and the results so far are very interesting.
Because birds lack forearms and cannot modify their environment it has always been quite difficult to test their intelligence. In terms of brain size, often a marker of the important relationship to intelligence, many birds have large brain-to-body ratios. The magpie has a very large nidopallium, which is the region of the avian brain that relates to cognitive and executive tasks and in relative terms its size equals those of both chimpanzees and humans.
Many birds perform tasks that demonstrate an ability to learn behavior. Some crows have learned to use twigs to reach their prey, while the Egyptian vulture will use a stone to crack ostrich eggs to get at the nutritious yolk. One test of intelligence is the ability to recognize one’s own image in a mirror. There are very few mammals that are able to do this but in control studies magpies were marked with a sticker that they could only see when reflected in a mirror. Upon seeing the stickers in their reflection, the birds then removed them. This makes them the only non mammals so far discovered to have this ability.
Socially the magpie is monogamous and will remain with the same mate from one season to the next. They are omnivores who will eat a wide range of food types and they have adapted well to the never ending human expansion and are often seen on roads feeding on road kill. They will also sometimes operate in gangs using a diverse range of organised hunting techniques. Another demonstration of their intelligence is their ability to hide food and then retrieve it again during times of scarcity.
Apart from these examples of intelligence there is one other reason we should perhaps reconsider our distrust of the magpie. They have been seen to have elaborate grieving rituals for their dead and are even believed to bring branches or leaves to a body in much the same way as we might bring flowers or a wreath to a funeral. Marc Bekoff of the University of Colorado in the U.S. feels that this may demonstrate that they are capable of complex emotions.
Perhaps the next time someone accuses you of being a bird brain rather than take offence, you might consider that they are offering a compliment!
Tintin: According to Wikipedia “… Castafiore leaves for Milan to perform an opera. When Tintin finds that the name of the opera is La gazza ladra (Italian: The Thieving Magpie), he realises that the true culprit responsible for the theft of the emerald and the scissors is a Magpie. He later explains to Haddock that the scissors must have fallen out of the nest and was found by Miarka. Tintin retrieves the emerald and hands it to Thomson and Thompson to return it to Castafiore. The stonemason mends the broken step, only for Haddock to step on it again… The Castafiore Emerald (French: Les Bijoux de la Castafiore) is the twenty-first volume of The Adventures of Tintin, the comics series by Belgian cartoonist Hergé. It was serialised weekly from July 1961 to September 1962 in Tintinmagazine…”
And here for those with a bit of time to spare is Gioacchino Rossini’s La Gazza ladra from Italy’s famous Pesaro festival in a 2007 performance with: Paolo Bordogna Fabrizio; Kleopatra Papatheologou Lucia; Dmitry Korchak Giannetto; Mariola Cantarero Ninetta; Alex EspositoFernando; Michele Pertusi Gottardo, il Podestà; Manuela Custer Pippo; Stefan Cifolelli Isacco; Cosimo Panozzo Antonio; Vittorio Prato Giorgio; Matteo Ferrara Ernesto/Il Pretore; Sandhya Nagaraja La Gazza
Prague Chamber Choir; Production: Damiano Michieletto
Orchestra Haydn Di Bolzano E Trento; Conductor Lù Jia
Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro 2007
Writer: Mike Alexander
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