Excerpt: The Thing With Feathers: The Suprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human

Writer Noah Strycker catalogs what our winged friends have to teach us about our bodies, consciousness, and even love.

With their flashy black-and-white attire and bold habits, magpies have been familiar to humans for a very long time. They were called simply “pies,” or “pyes,” throughout much of English-language history. The prefix was probably added sometime in the sixteenth century, “mag” being a nickname for “Margaret,” which was used as slang for anything feminine— in this case, perhaps because people perceived the birds as idle chatterboxes.

In Europe, where magpies are most common—the thirteenth most abundant bird in Britain, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds—they figure prominently in folklore and superstition. If you see a gang of magpies, according to widespread tradition, your fortune will be based on the number of individuals in the group; more precisely, two birds will invite good luck, but a lone magpie can bring down all manner of curses. Upon encountering a single magpie, prudent citizens should therefore greet it with respect by calling out “Hello, Mr. Magpie” or “Good morning, sir” to allay bad luck, or perhaps chant “I defy thee” several times in quick succession to the same effect. It also helps to salute the bird, spit on the ground, and pinch whomever you’re walking with. Just in case.

The dark reputation of magpies runs deep. In Scotland, mag- pies foretell death and carry Satan’s blood in their mouth (which has a red lining, the only drop of bright color on an otherwise black-and-white bird). In France and Sweden, the birds are regarded as thieves, probably because of their supposed habit of stealing shiny objects, especially valuable ones. Magpies were closely associated with witchcraft during the Middle Ages, along with ravens and black cats. One English folktale goes so far as to suggest that when Jesus was crucified, all of the world’s birds sang to comfort him except the magpie, which was for- ever cursed in consequence.

By contrast, Asian cultures, particularly Chinese and Korean, have historically embraced magpies. In China, the birds are extremely popular, seen as helpful, and bring good news and joy. (This dichotomy ties in, incidentally, with the reputations of bats and dragons, which also have been reviled by Western civilization but admired by those in the East.) Native North American tribes also tend to portray the birds positively, often as guardians or helpful messengers in traditional creation myths.

Similar-looking black-and-white magpies occupy most of Europe, Asia, and western North America. (The Australian magpie, though superficially similar, isn’t closely related to its counterparts in the northern hemisphere, and there are eight species of more colorful magpies in Southeast Asia.) These are currently recognized as three distinct species: the Eurasian magpie of Europe and Asia, the black-billed magpie of North America, and the yellow-billed magpie, which replaces the black-billed in California’s Central Valley. All three appear nearly identical and are so closely related, DNA evidence shows, that they can be regarded as one globally distributed superspecies.


Along with other members of the corvid family—crows, ravens, jackdaws, rooks, jays, nutcrackers, treepies, and choughs—magpies have long been thought by scientists to be among the world’s smartest birds, with parrots a close second, and among the most intelligent of all animals. Most corvids are highly social, have large brains, and develop slowly—all characteristics that probably contribute to greater cognitive abilities—and magpies are no exception. When the birds’ intelligence is combined with their bold, curious, and often mischievous personalities, they can impress us in surprising ways.

Consider the case of Won Young Lee, a Ph.D. student at Seoul National University in Korea who, in 2009, was helping with a long-term study of magpie breeding success on the university campus. As part of his fieldwork, Lee climbed trees to check on various magpie nests, handling the eggs and chicks to obtain measurements. Partway through the season, he noticed something eerie . . . the magpies were following him around.

He couldn’t walk outdoors without a squawking, scolding bird hounding his heels. The birds didn’t bother any of the other 20,000 students on campus, and only the magpies with nests monitored by Lee seemed to harass him. Even when he switched hats with a friend, the birds weren’t fooled. So Lee devised an experiment. He dressed two researchers in the same clothes, instructed one to climb trees with magpie nests while the other took data on the ground, and later returned to see how the magpies would react. The birds predictably mobbed the guy who had messed with their nests and left the other researcher alone, showing an uncanny ability to recognize human faces 

Magpies are well known for taunting larger animals, especially pets. They are probably just trying to drive off a perceived predator, but sometimes they seem to consciously trick other creatures with mean-spirited mind games. One BBC documentary featured a pet magpie that loved to torment two domestic dogs by imitating the alarm call of ducks on the pond outside his house; this would invariably send the poor canines scrambling outside to chase a nonexistent fox—because the ducks often called warnings to one another when the fox passed by. Another pair of magpies once repeatedly taunted a cat along a busy country road in Britain by perching in a tree, waiting for a break in traffic, and then flying down to the pavement to lure the kitty into the road; when a car approached, the birds would flutter up at the last second while the cat scram- bled to avoid becoming roadkill.

Theft seems to be a persistent personality trait. Rossini was inspired to write an opera in the early 1800s called La Gazza Ladra—The Thieving Magpie—and people who have an un- usual preoccupation with shiny objects are said to have “mag- pie syndrome.” This thieving reputation may be part folktale, but the birds do occasionally swipe things, often for no obvious purpose. When a magpie was caught stealing a customer’s car keys at a garage in Littleborough, England, it made the Manchester Evening News, and also in Britain, The Telegraph reported in 2008 that a magpie had snatched a woman’s $5,000 platinum engagement ring from her windowsill while she was in the shower—luckily, her husband-to-be found it tucked safely in the bird’s nest in a nearby oak tree, albeit three years later!

One of the most intriguing behaviors of wild magpies involves their apparent habit of holding impromptu funerals. Sometimes, when a magpie finds a dead comrade, it will begin squawking at full volume, calling in all other magpies in the area, which join in an intense racket as they gather around the body. At some point, they all go quiet; there follows a period of contemplation, during which time different individuals will sometimes gently probe or preen the carcass, before each bird silently takes its leave, one by one.

Such funerals have been well documented, both with Eurasian magpies in Europe and black-billed magpies in North America. The scenario sometimes involves road-killed birds (magpies occasionally get run over while scavenging meat of other flattened animals, which can lead to pileups of carcasses on busy highways). In 2009, a researcher from the University of Colorado published detailed observations of four magpies at a funeral alongside the corpse of a fifth bird, and concluded that the birds were displaying humanlike emotions. According to his report of the occurrence, two of the individual magpies flew off and returned with grass, which they tenderly laid beside the dead bird, “stood vigil” for a few seconds, and then silently departed. After his paper was published, the researcher received a barrage of e-mails from others who had witnessed similar events. Why not? Magpies are, ironically, perpetually dressed in formal black and white. If dolphins can form friendships, rats can display empathy, and elephants mourn their dead, even bullying magpies might be forgiven for showing grief.

These days, traditionally human characteristics seem to be falling like dominoes. Magpies can recognize themselves in a mirror and apparently have a sense of self just as we do. Is it going too far to suggest that they show behavior analogous to human emotions, too?

Magpies display their intelligence in many ways—thieving, holding a grudge, taunting, and even grieving—but self- recognition sets them apart from other birds. Though not every species has been tested with mirrors in a lab, many birds do encounter mirrors in today’s “wild” suburban landscape, and observations indicate that most aren’t able to recognize their own image.

In March 2012, for instance, a birder visiting the lighthouse at Florida’s St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge noticed a male northern cardinal attacking its own reflection in the side mirror of a car in the parking lot. This wasn’t too unusual; many songbirds—female brown-headed cowbirds are routine offenders—have been recorded engaging in this behavior, and the same birder had also noted a cardinal battling its reflection in almost every window of his house over the previous weeks. It was spring, and the local cardinals were pumped up on territorial hormones. But the one at St. Marks seemed incredibly aggressive. It rotated between three or four different parked cars, each time perching precariously on the rubber trim at the base of one of the front windows, where it could look straight into a side mirror. Then it would take a deep breath and launch itself at its reflection, fluttering against the mirror in a futile attempt to drive off the perceived intruder. Others had noticed this bird already. One birder had photographed the same cardinal attacking a car mirror three months earlier, and remarked that it had kept going for at least an hour on that occasion. Another person had watched the cardinal battling against reflective bumpers as well as mirrors. This bird would even attack the mirrors of cars that had just pulled into the parking lot, flying toward them like a miniature red kamikaze as soon as the people got out.

Northern cardinals, aggressive and strong for their size, aren’t known for being the cleverest of animals, but you’d think eventually the bird would learn its lesson. After beating against itself so many times, shouldn’t the bird realize the difference between a real, live opponent and its own reflection? Didn’t it at least wonder why it always seemed to hit an invisible barrier? But the poor cardinal continued to tilt at parked cars like a feathered Don Quixote, driving itself to exhaustion, day after day, month after month.

This happens all the time in suburban areas around the world, most often during the breeding season. Territorial birds glimpse their reflections in windows, car mirrors, and other surfaces, and reflexively try to drive away the “other bird,” sometimes returning regularly for months or even years without ever realizing their mistake. This business can be particularly annoying for people who must endure the constant sound of a bird tapping on their window—and a bit creepy for some who believe that birds are souls of the dead, perhaps foretelling the imminent demise of someone inside the house.

There’s not much you can do if a bird starts attacking your windows other than block the outside of the glass with something non-reflective. If, as one person recently reported, a robin starts assaulting fifteen different windows on your house, and you don’t want to turn your home into a windowless cave, you just have to wait out the siege. Cardinals attack windows in North America, robins do it in Europe, and magpie-larks (no relation to magpies) are routine offenders in Australia, to the dismay of thousands of peaceable citizens.

This odd behavior suggests that cardinals, robins, and many other birds fail the mirror test. Even with repeated exposure, they never get the trick. One wonders why birds don’t also at- tack their own reflections in calm bodies of water; perhaps they have learned about the way light behaves on a puddle, or maybe the angle of looking down at a flat surface doesn’t set off the hardwired response to a rival. In any case, most birds don’t seem to understand mirrors at all; they just don’t realize the essential difference between themselves and other individual birds.

Which means magpies might possess an abstract capability that most other birds lack. If only we could understand what it is, we might learn something about ourselves, too.

Psychology Gordon Gallup, Jr., has spent much of his life pondering the concept of self-awareness in animals. In 1970, he pioneered the use of mirrors with animals by placing a full- length mirror in a chimpanzee’s cage for ten days. He watched as the chimp first reacted with alarm, then apparently began to understand its own reflection as it groomed and made facial gestures in front of it. Gallup was fascinated. Could the chimpanzee really recognize itself? To be certain, he colored different spots on the chimp’s head with an odorless dye to see whether the chimp’s fingers would gravitate to those spots as it looked in the mirror. The chimpanzee cooperated, and the results were published in Science. Researchers have been using the mark test ever since on all kinds of creatures, from those German magpies to one-year-old humans. After his first experiment with chimpanzees, Gallup expanded. He found that all kinds of monkeys, including tamarins, marmosets, capuchins, baboons, and macaques, never passed the test, no matter how long they were exposed to a mirror (some experiments lasted years). Instead of using their reflection to groom themselves or check out parts of their genitals that they’d never seen before, as the chimps did, monkeys always acted as though they were interacting with another individual, like the cardinal at the St. Marks lighthouse.

Some chimpanzees seemed to spontaneously recognize themselves after the initial adjustment. Additional research showed that all of the great apes—chimps, orangutans, gorillas, bonobos, and humans—can pass the mirror test, although documentation has been weaker for gorillas than the other apes. This led Gallup to propose that self-awareness is present in the great apes but not in monkeys, perhaps one indication of the mental differences between the two major groups of primates. Other researchers followed up with evidence that bottlenose dolphins, orcas, and Asian elephants could also pass the mirror test, complicating Gallup’s findings. Eurasian magpies were an especially odd addition to the list, because birds have different brain structures from those of mammals. Mammals and birds diverged about 300 million years ago; we ended up with the frontal cortex, while birds have a cluster of different structures in the same region. The German researchers who conducted the mirror experiment with magpies suggested that self-recognition could have evolved independently in birds and mammals, and that the frontal cortex is not a prerequisite for intelligence. They believed that social behavior is a better predictor of mental ability than is brain structure.

Each study seemed to raise more questions than answers, partly because of the difficulty in assessing the mental states of animals without being able to communicate directly with them. So Gallup decided to shift his focus from chimpanzees and monkeys to a more familiar species: humans.

People have an interesting relationship with mirrors. Studies show that babies can’t recognize their own reflections until they are about eighteen months old. Most children develop the ability by the age of two, with a few notable exceptions. For instance, some mentally disabled people never learn to recognize their own image. Self-recognition is often delayed in people with autism, and up to 30 percent of autistics never learn it at all. Patients with schizophrenia are likewise apt to respond to their reflections as if to another person. Some Alzheimer’s patients also lose the ability to recognize themselves late in life.

There have been several cases of brain-damaged people who suddenly lose self-recognition, including one man who could identify other people in mirrors but not himself. The damaged area is usually located somewhere in the right prefrontal cortex of the brain—just above and behind your right eyeball—which suggests that self-recognition can be attributed to that specific region. In one captivating study, epileptic patients were each shown a hybrid photo of their own face combined with a celebrity’s face while either the right or left side of their brain was anesthetized. Those with the left side of their brain “turned off” recognized themselves in the photo, but those with the right side anesthetized did not.

At about the same time that babies begin to recognize their own reflection, they start becoming aware of the thoughts and feelings of others—for instance, by showing embarrassment or trying to help a mother in distress. Gallup believed these two conditions are linked. Only by having a sense of self, he reasoned, can you make inferences about others’ thoughts and actions. Thus, only creatures with self-awareness should display gratitude, deception, empathy, sympathy, humor, and associated mental states.

That’s a pretty significant connection if most of the world’s animals really don’t have a sense of self. Perhaps the world is divided into creatures that can comprehend their own being—and infer about the experiences of others—and those that merely see others as mates or competition. (Farther down the slippery scale of consciousness, trees, amoebas, and other less aware living things could constitute a third group.) If that’s true, according to Gallup, your pet dog or cat falls into the second category, along with most birds, but magpies belong in the first—with us.

Whether the mirror test accurately measures selfhood is debatable, partly because the test allows the possibility of false negatives. One researcher showed that young children who had been marked with face rouge passed the test more often if they 22first watched someone else remove a spot of rouge from their own face, indicating that the mark was undesirable. Animals might likewise identify a mark on themselves without bothering to remove it. Also, many animals rely mainly on senses besides eyesight; dogs, for instance, are oriented to smell rather than sight, so might not react to a mirror even if they did possess a sense of self-awareness.

 The prefrontal cortex is known to be linked to personality, prediction, and episodic memory—the brain’s ability to “time travel” to recall past events at particular places and times—and probably helps make decisions about socially responsible behavior. This was demonstrated in a famous case from 1848, when Phineas Gage, an unfortunate railroad construction worker, had an iron rod driven through his skull from the back of his left cheek to the top of his head, passing behind his eyeball and through the brain en route. Though he survived the accident and recovered, his friends noticed a frightening change in his personality afterward. Overnight, Gage transformed from a well-adjusted human being into an irritable and quick- tempered man, and stayed that way. He also became inefficient and impatient at work even though he could perform tasks with the same dexterity as before. More recent studies have shown that the prefrontal cortex controls our ability to delay instant gratification in favor of a greater long-term result— something that most birds may not be able to do, at least consciously.

Magpies, with their mischievous personality, ability to recognize individual predators, and unique social behaviors that hint at emotion—such as holding funerals—are good candi- dates to develop the sense of self that we associate with intelligence. They have relatively large brains, comparable to apes and slightly below humans, even if the specific structures are organized differently. So why are we surprised that magpies can recognize themselves in a mirror? They may not be building spaceships, but we probably don’t give them enough credit for their street smarts.

By the same logic, we shouldn’t expect all birds to pass the mirror test. In 1981, a group of researchers decided to show that pigeons could do it. They expended inordinate efforts in training the birds to peck at marks on their body that were visible only in a mirror. Nobody, including the experimenters, ever argued that the pigeons could spontaneously recognize their own reflections. Rather, the study was a challenge to the mirror test, suggesting that its results should not necessarily be interpreted as self-awareness, because even animals lacking self-recognition could be taught to pass. In the end, the pigeons did appear to pass the test, but their performance showed no hint of spontaneous recognition, only rigorous training.

Gallup was not impressed by the pigeon experiment. “Training an animal to respond to marks on its body, without collateral evidence of self-recognition,” he later wrote, “indicates more about the achievements of the researchers who designed the training procedures than any underlying ability of the animal.”

Nothing, in other words, can replace that magic spark when you gaze into a mirror and recognize the curious face staring back, eyeball to eyeball, as your own. From Snow White’s vain stepmother to Michael Jackson’s haunting lyrics “I’m starting with the man in the mirror, I’m asking him to change his ways . . . .” we humans have long been fascinated by mirror images. On reflection, we might recognize some part of ourselves in Mr. Magpie.

Excerpted from THE THING WITH FEATHERS: The Suprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human. Copyright (c) 2014 by Noah Strycker. All right reserved.