Magpies with more friends a lot smarter, scientists find

By AG Staff 8 February 2018
Reading Time: 2 Minutes Print this page
We already knew that magpies were smart but now we know exactly how their intelligence has evolved.

MAGPIES LIVING IN bigger flocks are a lot smarter than those from smaller flocks, according to a new study by the University of Western Australia. 

Lead author of the paper Benjamin Ashton told Australian Geographic that this is the first time a link between individual cognitive ability and group size has been established in Australian magpies.

Ben was looking to test the social intelligence hypothesis, which says that advanced cognitive ability evolved as a consequence of complex social groups.

“The magpies presented a really unique opportunity to investigate this hypothesis because they live in groups that range in size from 3-15 individuals and hey are really well habituated.

“We have also been monitoring the study population for over 5 years, so we can incorporate various aspects of the magpies life-history into the analysis.”

The group of magpies were given four cognitive tasks by the researchers that measured “inhibitory control, associative learning, reversal learning, and spatial memory,” said Ben.

The magpies living in larger groups completed the cognitive tasks much faster compared to those from smaller groups. However, Ben acknowledged that variations in energy intake and task attention could impact peformance. 

“For the associative learning task there was an individual from a group size of 12 that took 10 trials to learn the association between colour and food reward, whereas there was an individual from a group size of three which took 62 trials,” Ben said.

“We also found that individual performance was correlated across all four tasks, so an individual that performed well in one task performed well in all four, this is evidence of a general cognitive factor, or what we call general intelligence in humans.”

Now, the researchers are eager to find out what exactly it is about the makeup of a complex social group that evolves a birds intelligence. 

“It is possible that it’s the number of relationships, or the strength of relationships, an individual has to maintain in a large group which drives cognitive development.

“Alternatively, it could be the number of affiliative or antagonistic interactions.

“We’re planning on constructing individual social networks to characterise these relationships and then investigate whether they have an effect on cognitive performance.”