Self-recognition, once thought to be an ability possessed only by select primates, has now been demonstrated in a bird — the magpie.
So they aren't mere bird brains after all say newspapers all across America today. The AP moved a story today about how magpies pass the classic 'mark test.' PLoS Biology, a peer reviewed journal, published the study. I haven't read it yet, but am eager to - just as soon as I get my other work done! It looks promising and in the meantime, I found a nifty video the research team put together showing the little guys in the test. You can view it at the very end.
In the test, individuals are marked with something, usually a dot of paint or a sticker, in a place they can't see on themselves without using a mirror. Half the time, the mark is conspicuous. The other half it blends in. For the magpies, stickers were used — highly noticeable yellow ones and inconspicuous black ones.
The birds scratched at the yellow ones and left the black ones alone. And, supposedly that means they can recognize themselves in mirrors and by extension have a sense of self — a self concept in other words. To be aware of oneself as an individual is pretty high-level cognition, very few species even have a clue.
I've written about the mark test before, back when elephants made headlines for passing the mark test. Dolphins also pass the mark test. You can read more about the elephants and the meaning of mirror self-recognition here.
Though they are from vastly different evolutionary lines, what these species all share is a significantly large brain for their body size. Why species develop big brains is an even more fascinating subject.
Until next time, enjoy this great magpie video.
It's just about enough to make me want to raise magpies. They do seem really smart — them and crows. But they'd make an even bigger mess than two newfoundlands. I think I'll leave the bird studies to the ornithologists.