Magpies Can Recognize Reflection

Recognizing one's self in a mirror used to be considered the hallmark of humans some other animals such as elephants, dolphins and chimps. Now scientists have shown that even a magpie can do the trick.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Michele Norris.

Self-awareness is not something we're born with. Most children are nearly two years old before they realize the face in the mirror belongs to them. That recognition is a major developmental milestone, and it was believed to be unique to humans.

As NPR's Jon Hamilton reports, it turns out self-awareness also occurs in birds.

(Soundbite of music)

JONATHAN HAMILTON: These aren't just any birds, they're magpies, like those smart alecs from the "Heckle and Jeckle" cartoon.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Power of Thought")

Mr. DAYTON ALLEN (Voice Actor): (As Jeckle) You know, I've been lying here thinking.

Mr. ALLEN: (As Heckle) With what, chum?

Mr. ALLEN: (As Jeckle) Brains, old boy, brains.

HAMILTON: The cartoon got it right, says Helmut Prior. He studies magpies at the University of Frankfurt.

Mr. HELMUT PRIOR (Psychologist, University of Frankfurt): They have huge brains compared to other birds. They show highly intelligent social behavior. And the magpies, they are very curious.

HAMILTON: Prior thought they might even have some self-awareness. So he put mirrors in the cages of five magpies to see whether they would recognize that the bird in the mirror was their reflection. Two of them treated the reflected bird as an enemy, but the other three figured it out.

Mr. PRIOR: They reacted in a way that suggests that they considered the mirror image as a picture of themselves.

HAMILTON: To be certain this really was self recognition, Prior placed colored stickers on their feathers in a place they could see only by using the mirror. The birds noticed the colored stickers and removed them. They did not remove black stickers, which were almost impossible to see against their black feathers.

Magpies are just the latest species to recognize themselves in a mirror. Many chimpanzees can do it, so can some bottlenose dolphins. And not long ago, Frans de Waal from Emory University helped conduct an experiment that involved an eight-foot mirror and an Asian elephant.

Professor FRANS DE WAAL (Primate Behavior, Emory University): And so we put a big cross above the eye of the elephant that he could not see in any way without a mirror. And she passed the test.

HAMILTON: By repeatedly touching the mark with her trunk. De Waal says the magpie study is the first to find this sort of self-recognition in a species that is not a mammal with a large brain.

Prof. DE WAAL: The magpie also has a large brain, but it's a totally different brain because it's a bird brain. And so, it has evolved for 309 years or so independently. And the structures and the underlying mechanisms are maybe not the same as in mammals.

HAMILTON: Which suggests that evolution has developed self-recognition twice. De Waal says self-recognition probably helps animals understand the minds of other members of their species. For magpies, this could mean better success hiding food. But in chimps and humans, De Waal says, self-recognition appears to be the first step toward empathy, something he has seen frequently among chimps.

Prof. DE WAAL: There may be an all-female and a group of chimpanzees who can barely walk. And then the younger females, they will help her. So, if she tries to get up into a climbing stretcher, they will push her up, or if she needs water, they go fetch water for her and they bring it to her. And that were quite as if you take the perspective of somebody else.

HAMILTON: A skill that most children acquire, eventually. The new search appears in the journal Public Library of Science.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

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