Mirror, mirror

December 27, 2008 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

Well, I really could have told scientists about this. They didn’t need to conduct tests on magpies to find out they are a pretty smart bird and that they recognise themselves in a mirror. About a month ago, I was attacked by an Australian magpie. Spring is magpie season when breeding magpies can be aggressive and swoop on poor unsuspecting children and adults who might be passing by nests. They are simply defending their territory but I can tell you that when a large black and white magpie hits the top of your head, it’s pretty darn painful. I’ve been attacked about four times that I can remember. Obviously, I’m irresistible to magpies!

Most Australians know that if you perch a pair of sunglasses on the top of your head, this stops the sudden swoop of the magpie. Painting eyes on the backs of hats does the trick too. But on said occasions I have been without Magpie defence items! Because we live in the Bush, we are well-used to birds during breeding season. Kookaburras have been known to fly into our windows repeatedly because they think the reflection is a potential, attractive mate. Sometimes we’ve had to cover large windows with cardboard or place a mirror nearby (for some reason, the mirror stops them). And I’ve seen magpies approach a mirror look into it; look behind it; and return many times for another look-see. So I’ve always been convinced that Australian magpies recognise themselves in a mirror and therefore have self-consciousness.

Researchers exposed five magpies (not Australian ones) to the mirror test. Yellow spots were painted on the black feathers on their necks and the magpies peered into the mirrors, examined their reflections, looked behind the mirrors or tried to touch the yellow mark.  The really interesting thing is that the magpies then preened their feathers and removed the yellow mark, then stopped preening that spot. The researchers (really, I could have saved them the time) concluded that magpies are capable of self-recognition, knew that their appearance had been marred by an ugly yellow spot and restored themselves to an acceptable condition. Personally, I think we should compare Australian magpies to the magpies in the test – not sure if they were European magpies – because I reckon Aussie magpies would really show the scientists how smart they are.

Actually, I spend a lot of time watching birds. I feed rosellas, kookaburras, currawongs, brown cuckoo doves (native to Eastern Australia and also called cinnamon dove) and rainbow lorikeets (I mix up a special feast for them made from nectar mix, fruit and vegetables). These are all wild birds, I don’t do cages. But everyday, I see rosella battles, currawongs taking a peek through the window, and kookaburras who tap on the glass wanting food. And the lorikeets, wild as they are, love to sit in the huge gumtree that looms over our balcony and listen to music. For some bizarre reason, they seem to prefer 1980s music, particularly the song Down Under by Men at Work. Well, they are great Aussie birds! I swear they dance on the branches of that gum tree.

Entry filed under: Birds, Nature, Science. Tags: , .

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