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Is Your Bird a "Narcissus?"

Magpie mirror study shows that birds demonstrate levels of self-recognition

By Rachael Brugger
Posted: September 24, 2008 5 a.m. EST

A magpie will admire itself in a mirror
This magpie might recognize itself in a mirror.

If you’ve noticed your parrot gazing into the mirror, it might be mere curiosity at the “other bird” in the room. However, a study performed by psychologist Herbert Prior at Goethe University of Frankfurt suggests that some bird species are actually admiring themselves.

In a study published last month, Prior found that members of the corvid family, which includes ravens, crows and jays, show signs of self-recognition. Over several months, Prior worked with Gerti, Goldi, Schatzi, Harvey and Lily-five hand-reared magpies, to investigate their reactions in front of a mirror.

A series of three tests showed that the magpies, unlike most birds, deviated from a typical fight-or-flight reaction to a mirror. The open mirror test gauged the birds’ reactions to a mirror. The mirror preference and mirror exploration test tested the birds curiosity by allowing them to pick a cage compartment with a mirror or one without.

The mark test proved to be most successful, with three out of the five magpies showing self-directed behavior when a black, red or yellow mark was placed on their bodies.

Prior was especially impressed with the fact that these magpies were the first non-mammal species to demonstrate significant mirror self-recognition qualities. Apes, dolphins and elephants, mammals with a high body-to-brain ratio, were among the first animals to show signs of this high-brain function. 

“A particularly interesting thing with birds is that they had a separate evolution from mammals for about 300 million years,” Prior said. “Therefore, it is interesting to see how feats like tool-use, social intelligence, and self-recognition have emerged on independent routes.”

Prior chose magpies for this particular study because they are known as a food-storing corvid, which led the researchers to believe they have a level of social understanding. He also said they are curious birds and likely to engage in new situations.

Similar tests have been performed in other bird species. In her studies of African grey parrots and bird intelligence, Dr. Irene Pepperberg performed the mark test on her African grey parrot, Griffin, which scratched at the mark for nine seconds. Her team did not publish the data, however, because they didn’t believe Griffin reacted to the mark for a significant amount of time.

“Although greys do engage in quite a lot of preening and will react without mirrors to any bit of misplaced feather down, for example, my birds seem somewhat unconcerned about things like fruit stains on their bodies,” Pepperberg explained. “Thus I wonder if reactions to mark tests as criteria for mirror self-recognition might depend somewhat upon feeding ecology.”

Both Prior and Pepperberg recognized a connection between the corvid and parrot families. Both have high cortical areas in their brain, allowing them to process more information, said Pepperberg. Her studies have shown that African greys can perform some cognitive tasks at the same level as an ape or a small child.

Prior’s finding could likely lead to big developments in the field of aviation. “It is quite likely that it will give rise to a number of other studies,” he said. His team will integrate the information to further research on higher avian cognition.

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Is Your Bird a "Narcissus?"

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Reader Comments
Good stuff
Tim, Spring, TX
Posted: 10/5/2008 9:40:37 PM
I think that it is highly likely that birds can recognize differences and it's more than mere curiosity. Any one that owns a cockatiel can understand that any deviation gets a new observation.
Stephanie, Kilbride, ON
Posted: 10/5/2008 9:14:17 AM
ok THERE IS SOMETHING NEW
Darren, Sarasota, FL
Posted: 9/30/2008 12:24:38 PM
excellent article
stephanie, no smithfield, RI
Posted: 9/28/2008 12:49:47 PM
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