Magpies are often maligned as pests, but they’re actually quite interesting birds that are usually overlooked for both their beauty and their intelligence. Here are six interesting facts about magpies.
1. Magpies Don’t Like Shiny Things — They’re Scared of Them
Magpies have a reputation as thieves out to steal your shiny jewelry or take ornaments from your garden, but new research shows that objects that are shiny probably repel magpies who don’t much like the look of them. The myth seems to have built up without much science to back it up, but the truth could actually be useful. Magpies are capable of wrecking crops by digging for grain, berries and other food, so along with other bird-scaring measures, the use of shiny materials in fields might help keep the magpies away and our crops safe from being upturned and trampled.
2. Magpies Will Eat Almost Anything, Including Bird Eggs and Chicks
While their natural diet is quite broad, including insects, mice and other small rodents, grain, berries and other fruit, magpies have been known to steal other birds’ eggs and even young chicks.
In addition, they’ve adapted rather well to suburban living and will often eat leftover scraps and other food bits put out for them, though for their health it’s probably better that you give them proper bird food so as to ensure they don’t eat anything that might be poisonous.
3. Magpies Are Closely Related to Crows, Jays and Ravens
Though they may look quite a bit different at first glance, magpies belong to the bird family corvidae, a group that includes crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaws and jays, as well as lesser recognized members like treepies, choughs and nutcrackers. As such, they are among the most intelligent family of birds recognized by modern science. Which leads us to our next fact:
4. Magpies Recognize Themselves in Mirrors
European magpies have demonstrated the remarkable ability to recognize their own reflections in mirrors, something that was once thought to be a defining characteristic belonging only to humans. This might not sound that amazing, but out of countless species tested, only four ape species, bottlenose dolphins and Asian elephants have demonstrated this ability.
Scientists tested the magpies by placing a colored mark on their necks (which did not hurt or cause skin irritation). Then when placed in a cage with several mirrors, the birds were filmed scratching at their necks after looking at their reflections. With everything else controlled for, this could only mean that magpies had recognized themselves in the mirrors, and not just that, but had differentiated between what was their normal physical state and their now marked plumage.
You can watch a video of that below:
For a really nerdy aside: scientists believe that self-awareness in birds and certain mammals may be an example of convergent evolution, which is where unrelated species evolve particular characteristics through different means. Another example of convergent evolution, and perhaps one of the best, is our very own set of camera eyes.
5. What is a Group of Magpies Called?
There are several names given to a group of magpies, but perhaps the most descriptive is “a parliament.” The birds have earned this title as a result of their often appearing in large groups in the Spring, looking stately and cawing at each other.
6. To The End of the Tail
Our last fascinating fact relates to one of the defining features of a magpie. While they share some similarities with their corvid family, the magpies possess an extremely long tail. In fact, a magpie’s tail is often roughly the same length as its entire body. Why magpies have such long tails is still debated but it may be that it gives the magpie, who isn’t a particularly strong, though still capable flier, the ability to make swift turns while in the air. This would allow the magpie to evade larger predator birds and make up for its rather average flying abilities.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.