The Eurasian Magpie, one of the world’s smartest animals, uses iridescent feathers like we use expensive clothes to convey status, welcome or hostility.
By Rex Graham
Found throughout Europe, Asia and parts of northern Africa, non-migratory magpie pairs may tolerate immature magpies wandering through their territories. Of course, their own young may stay. However, mature interlopers must be dressed down.
Magpies use tail flicks or wing-flirting displays. They’re enough to send would-be squatters and competitors on their way. They warmly greet mates the same way.
Mirror test of Eurasian Magpie
Like humans and some ape species, Magpies (and Jackdaws) use a mirror in lab settings to explore their own bodies. This ability is a signature of self-recognition, high intelligence and even consciousness. They use the same self-awareness in feather displays.
“Magpies move the iridescent parts of their wings and tails so that the intensity of the colors may be maximized, and the plumage colors may have a greater visual impact,” Korean researchers reported in a 2016 issue of the journal Acta Ornithologica.
The magpies’ blue wing and green tail feathers are “structurally colored” by the way light interacts with micro- and nano-structural components in their barbules. The feathers appear iridescent only at small angles in relation to the direction of the sun; otherwise their feathers appear colored or blackish. In this way, Eurasian Magpies (and other iridescent species) may strategic position their bodies as a stronger iridescent signal than mere color could provide.
Magpie tail-flick messages
That’s why mature males’ long tails are so important. Males achieve brighter-green tail feathers as they age. Females tails are not as bright as the males’, but both sexes achieve bluer wing feathers with age, said the authors of the Acta Ornithologica study.
Magpies’ feather communication system offers only a glimpse of their many skills. Actually, after centuries of assuming the cognitive superiority of mammals to birds, scientists say many birds are on par with primates.
Some pooh-pooh anecdotal reports of seemingly smart individual birds. Alex, the African Gray Parrot who learned to use his communication skills to solve complex assignments, was regarded as a simple mimic, not intelligent.
However, cognitive scientists continued to report feats of other Alexes. They listed the key findings of avian cognition in a 2016 review article in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences:
• Chicks only a few days old have an “intuitive sense of numerical magnitude.”
• Most species tested in the crow family solve “invisible displacement problems” to the same degree as apes.
• Crows, parrots and cockatoos learn to delay immediate reward if waiting yields a larger one.
• Western Scrub Jays can remember not only where they bury food for later consumption, but also what they buried and when.
• Ravens, Rooks and Western Scrub Jays can infer if another bird of the same species is ignorant or knowledgeable about a food item they’ve hidden. Called Theory of Mind, bird species that have this capability can infer the perception, intention, knowledge and belief of other birds.
• Of course, crow-like birds and parrots can learn and imitate new vocalizations to attract the attention of other birds and learn to eavesdrop on others’ novel communications.
It’s appropriate to be skeptical of isolated examples of birds’ inferential reasoning, advance planning and impulse control. After all, the phylogenetic branches of birds and mammals diverged 300 million years ago. Indeed, the brains of primates and birds look very different: we have a prefrontal cortex, the epicenter of intelligence. Birds don’t have one.
However, in 1999 cognitive scientists reported that the avian pallium, a large structure in the brain of birds serves the same purpose as the mammalian neocortex.
“An astonishing number of similarities between avian pallium and mammalian neocortex have now been discovered,” German and Austrian cognitive scientists Onur Güntürkün and Thomas Bugnyar wrote in the Trends in Cognitive Sciences paper. “Instead of overestimating their mental powers, we appear to underestimate the similarities between avian and mammalian skills.”
However, not every tool-using bird species may be equally smart, Güntürkün and Bugnyar said. “For instance, cooperation may include aspects of learning, impulsive control, meta-memory, empathy, and theory of mind, but the degree to which each of the abilities has advanced may differ between species and taxonomic groups.”
— Rex Graham (@TopBirdingTours) August 29, 2016