Magpies help each other escape tracking devices with this one weird trick

Scientists who work with animals love to track their movements. This can provide interesting insights on everything from mating behavior, food sources, and even how animals behave socially — or antisocially, as the case may be.

This is normally accomplished using tracking equipment, which is attached to an animal so that it can be observed from a distance as it goes about its normal activities. However, Australian scientists have recently run into some problems in this area as the animals they are trying to track have removed these devices, revealing some thought-provoking behavior in the process.

Teamwork makes the dream work

Scientists have developed various harnesses and backpacks over the years to fit bird tracking devices. This little leather harness was used in field work in Alaska’s Denali National Park. Credit: Mary Lewandowski, Public Domain

The findings came as part of research by Joel Crampton, Celine H. Frère and Dominique A. Potvin, with the trio conducting a pilot study on a new new tracker design better suited to smaller bird species. Historically, the most common bird trackers have been too large to fit medium to smaller bird species, and while some solutions exist, they have mostly suffered in terms of data capacity or battery life.

The new trackers tested included GPS hardware and weighed less than a gram. They are designed to work in conjunction with an outdoor feeding station. This feeding station could wirelessly download data from the trackers as the birds came to feed, eliminating the need to restore the birds’ trackers to collect data. The station could also wirelessly charge the tracker’s batteries for extended use.

A special harness is designed to keep the trackers on the birds, using a magnetic closure. This allows the harnesses to be detached from the birds if necessary by simply attaching a magnet to the feeding station. The harness was considered a sturdy and robust design by the research team, who expected it to be removed only with a magnet or decent scissors. Magpies would be the subjects and since these birds have access to none of these instruments, the trial was expected to run smoothly.

Best prepared plans and all that

The Australian magpie is known for its ability to recognize dozens of different people, often refusing to attack or attack those it deems friendly. His beady eyed look is well known and treated with caution down under. Credit: JJ Harrison, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Five magpies were equipped with the tracking equipment, and the team was eager to start collecting data. However, things went wrong almost immediately. Just ten minutes after the last magpie was given armor, the researchers observed the birds’ curious behavior.

An adult female not equipped with a tracker tried to remove the armor from a younger bird and used her beak to get it off. Hours later, the birds had nearly all trackers removed, with the dominant male having been removed by the other birds by the third day of the study.

Speaking to the New York Times, Potvin noted the speed at which the investigation was moving toward a common ground. “The first tracker was off half an hour after we turned it on,” Potvin said. The birds worked together. The magpie held the harness still while the other worked with its beak. In less than 20 minutes, the assisting magpie had identified a buckle as the weakest point of the harness and cut it to free the other bird.

The birds had clearly decided they didn’t like the tracking devices and worked together to remove them. The team did not directly observe that all the harnesses were removed, and it is unclear whether the result was the action of just one bird or whether several techniques were developed to remove the devices.

The main thing that stood out was the collective ‘rescue behavior’ on display. Other birds in searches had not been seen before working together to remove such devices. The only clear allegory cited by the research team was the case of the Seychelles warblers helping each other remove seed clusters that were particularly adept at clinging to their feathers.

Potvin argues that the behavior is a good example of the cooperation often seen in social animals. Birds and other animals that live in groups tend to work together for the betterment of the social group, often exhibiting altruistic behaviors to help each other for no immediate benefit.

Unexpected lessons

In the short term, the magpies’ ability to free themselves has frustrated efforts to track the birds for conservation. With increasing heat waves in cities putting pressure on the survival of magpie chicks, more work is needed to understand how best to protect these populations.

However, the researchers still learned something about the simple magpie, even if it wasn’t what they originally set out to investigate. That’s how science goes sometimes, and the trick is to write down what happens so we can all benefit from the research!

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