Mirror Test Reveals Magpie’s Amazing Self-Recognition Ability

In a research project which shatters the long held belief that the ability of self-recognition was restricted to select primates, it has been discovered that Magpies also have this ability. This discovery brings another long held belief into question with regard to which part of the brain is used in the function of self-recognition. Strong evidence has indicated that it is the neocortex which comes into play in this function, but magpies do not even possess a neocortex.

The results of hundreds of tests by different research institutions over a number of years led researchers to the conclusion that, apart from humans, only four species of apes, bottlenose dolphins and Asian elephants were able to recognize themselves. As humans, we develop the ability to recognize ourselves in a mirror at around eighteen months of age. This is also the age when humans start displaying and developing social behavioural skills.It has been found that the most reliable method of testing for self-awareness is by means of a “mirror mark test”. A mark of some sort is placed on the animal being tested in such a way that it is only able to see the mark when it looks at its reflection in a mirror. This is the method which was used on the magpies by Helmut Prior and his colleagues at Goethe University in Frankfurt. Using five magpies, the researchers place a red, yellow or black sticker on the necks of the birds in such a way that it would only be seen in a mirror. None of the birds seemed perturbed by the sticker, until they saw themselves in a mirror. The birds with the colored spots scratched at their necks, while the birds which received a black sticker that was not noticeable against their black feathers, did not react upon seeing themselves in the mirror. This is seen as a clear indication that the birds recognized themselves in the mirror.

With regard to whether or not self-recognition is linked to the neocortex, researcher Franz de Waal from the Emory University in Atlanta points out that even if the magpie does not have a neocortex, it does have a large brain. He believes that it is this large brain that allows advanced connectivity and if it had been a different species, such as a sparrow, used in the test, it would not have had the same results. It is well known that Magpies have a penchant for shiny objects, which they steal and hide away. De Waal is of the opinion that it is not far-fetched to believe that this “master thief” has “perspective-taking ability”. This would support the findings which suggest that self-recognition in birds and mammals may be explained by the theory of convergent evolution, where similar evolutionary pressures can result in similar traits or behaviours, but these are reached via different routes.

Certainly, results of ongoing avian research projects continue to prove that there is still plenty to be discovered about the amazing birds that inhabit our beautiful planet.