European Magpies Are Birds With Self-Awareness

Parents will remember this special milestone moment for their kids: the first time they noticed themselves in the mirror. This self-recognition happens at about 18 months for humans, along with most primates and a few other mammals. And also... one bird. Yep. The European magpie is the only bird to have passed the mirror-mark test.

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I Spy With My Bird Eye... Me!

For centuries, researchers thought that self-recognition was limited to a few primates, elephants, bottlenose dolphins, and orca whales. But there's a new animal in town...with feathers. German psychologist Helmut Prior and his colleagues added European magpies to the exclusive list of animals with advanced cognitive abilities after a 2008 study published in the journal PLOS Biology.

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They performed the classic mirror-mark test by sticking colored dots onto the birds' necks, placing them outside of their line of vision. The magpies didn't react to the dots when they couldn't see them, but they started to scratch at them once placed in front of a mirror. The birds with black dots, however, had zero reaction. That means the birds recognize their reflections as themselves and not another animal. From this research, we now know that self-recognition isn't limited to mammals (and more recently, ants). Pretty cool, huh?

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Who You Callin' Bird-Brained?

But wait, there's more! Scientists once thought that self-awareness stemmed from the neocortex of the brain, but here's the thing—European magpies don't have a neocortex. As Science Daily states, this "suggests that higher cognitive skills can develop independently along separate evolutionary lines." In other words, bird brains work differently from mammalian brains, but that doesn't necessarily mean they aren't advanced. "Magpies are known for their ability to steal shiny objects and to hide away their loot," Helmut Prior tells New Scientist. "It's not too far-fetched that a master thief like a magpie has that perspective-taking ability." Takeaway: don't judge a bird by its brain.

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Written by Curiosity Staff February 15, 2017

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