Magpies recognise and 'scold' individual humans

Magpie (Image: Andrew Parkinson/ Naturepl.com) Magpies may have evolved the ability to help them survive in a human-dominated landscape

Related Stories

Magpies recognise and "scold" humans who they perceive to be threats to their nests, scientists have found.

During a routine nest-monitoring study a research team in South Korea discovered that the birds recognised an individual that had previously climbed up to and disturbed their nests.

When that person approached trees in which the birds were nesting, the magpies called out and pursued him.

The findings are published in the journal Animal Cognition.

One of the researchers, Sang-im Lee from Seoul National University, explained that the findings were "accidental observations".

SMART AND SOCIABLE

  • Magpies (Pica pica) roost together and, during the breeding season, they gather in "magpie parliaments" where birds look for mates.
  • They are part of the corvid family, which includes crows and ravens. These birds have also shown impressive cognitive skills, including tool use and problem solving.
  • Magpies appear black and white. But their wing feathers have a blue iridescent sheen and their tails have a green gloss.

Her colleague, Wonyoung Lee, climbed up to the birds' nests during the breeding season of 2009.

During a routine nest-monitoring study, "[Wonyoung] would count their eggs, measure the chicks, and take blood samples from them," explained Dr Lee.

But when Wonyoung later passed close to a nest that he had previously climbed up to, the adult magpies behaved very aggressively towards him, following him and making loud alarm calls.

To find out if the birds specifically recognised the scientist, the team carried out a series of experiments. They compared the birds' reactions to Wonyoung to their response when a stranger approached the trees in which the birds nested.

When two people approached a magpie nest that Wonyoung had previously climbed to, the birds would scold both of them, explained Dr Lee.

But, she told BBC Nature, "as the two moved away in different directions the magpies followed Wonyoung."

The researchers even tried disguises to fool the magpies - Wonyoung would give the other researcher his hat - but the birds would still pursue him.

Researcher Wonyoung Lee climbing to a magpie nest (Image: Sang-im Lee) Wonyoung Lee climbed to the nests in order to monitor the birds' breeding success

"And when people who had never climbed to the nests approached them, the birds just flew away," said Dr Lee.

The researchers tested 11 pairs of magpies and more than half of the birds appeared to recognise and react specifically to Wonyoung.

Magpies are actually the third bird species that have been found to recognise humans. In just the last year, researchers discovered that American crows and Northern mockingbirds have the same ability.

Dr Lee commented: "We suspect that they use facial features, but we haven't conducted experiments to properly test that hypothesis."

He believes that the birds might have evolved this capability to help them survive in an urban, human-dominated environment.

The study was carried out in collaboration with Ewha Womans University, Seoul and the Polish Academy of Sciences.

More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More from nature

  • Cardinal fish and ostracodFish filmed spitting 'fireworks'

    Film crew captures ostracods' spectacular defensive lightshow that makes predatory fish spit them out.

  • Arapaima'Locally extinct'

    A giant fish which used to dominate the Amazon river is now absent in many areas


  • DragonflyRapid reactions

    Dragonfly's super quick reactions recorded in slow motion by BBC film-makers


  • Wingless adult male of the midge Belgica antarcticaExtreme survivor

    Antarctic midge's small genome may be an adaptation to its extreme environment


  • Myotis midastactus specimen (previously identified as Myotis simus)Golden discovery

    A bat from Bolivia is described as a new species by scientists


  • Dinosaurs 'shrank' to become birds

    Huge meat-eating, land-living dinosaurs evolved into birds by constantly shrinking for over 50 million years, new research shows.

  • Would we starve without bees?

    Honey bees are under threat, and as pollination significantly contributes to the food we eat, what would we do without them?

  • Eggshells may act like 'sunblock'

    Birds' eggs show adaptations in pigment concentration and thickness to allow the right amount of sun for embryos, scientists say.

  • Female shrimps are more aggressive

    Female snapping shrimps are more aggressive than males when defending their territories despite their smaller claw size, a study shows.

BBC iWonder

  • Honey bee close-upInsect intelligence

    Are honey bees as smart as your sat nav?

  • Tyrannosaurus rex skull (c) Mark Williamson / Science Photo LibraryDinosaur dynasty

    One group of dinosaurs survived and their descendants can be seen all around us today


  • Brown rat cluse upRise of the rodent

    Reports of giant, 'super rats' are filling the headlines. But why are we being overrun by rats?


  • Cuckoo portraitHoliday hotspot

    What makes the UK such an attractive destination for visiting wildlife?


Awesome! And there's nothing common about such beauty.

Elaine Bernon on Facebook comments on the trio of common blue butterflies in our Photo of the Day.

Things To Do

RUN BY THE BBC AND PARTNERS

More Nature Activities >

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.