RESEARCH: Australian Magpies can remove tracking devices from their legs

The Australian Magpie can remove tracking devices placed on their legs, with help from another magpie. Ornithology is the study of birds and bird behaviour. In a study published in February 2022 in the scientific journal, Australian Field Ornithology, the researchers described Australian Magpies helping each other to remove their tracking devices that the researchers had placed on their legs. 

The Australian Magpie (Gymnorhina tibicen) is a black and white bird in the Artamidae family of butcherbirds. It is not related to the Eurasian or European Magpie (Pica pica) in the Corvidae family of crows. The Australian Magpie is widespread across Australia.

In 2019, animal ecologist Dr. Dominique Potvin and her team of researchers at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia, wanted to study magpie social behaviour because they are highly social birds. Social animals, including social birds, are creatures of the same species that live together in family groups, with their own set of behaviour rules, usually with a hierarchy, or order, of interactions. 

The researchers spent about six months creating a miniature tracking device – a small band – to put on the legs of Australian Magpies that they wanted to study. The tracking device was not designed to transmit real-time data to a computer. Instead, it was designed as a logging device to log the data then automatically fall off the magpie’s leg when the bird came near a magnet. Then the researchers could collect the tracker and extract the data from it by connecting the device to a computer. 

The researchers attached the trackers to five magpies. “The first tracker was off half an hour after we put it on,” said Dr. Potvin. Within three days, all five trackers were off the birds. 

The trackers were off not because the magpies had walked near a magnet. The trackers were taken off by the magpies themselves.

The scientists watched a magpie stand still while a helping magpie pecked at the device until it came off. It only took 20 minutes. 

The researchers thought that the devices were very strong and could not come off, except by coming near a magnet, but the helping magpie found the device’s weak spot – an exceptionally small, single clasp, about a millimetre long. Different helping magpies assisted the other four magpies to have their tracking device removed from their legs.

Dr. Potvin said that the magpie behaviour was “a special combination of helping, but also problem solving – of being really social and having this cognitive ability to solve puzzles.” 

The researchers have stopped their original study, and will now think of a different way to study the Australian Magpie. “What else are magpies capable of?” she asked.

Photographer: Martina Nicolls


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