In a recent column, Amazing Birds, our founding editor Eldon Greij described the intelligence of the world’s corvids – crows, ravens, jays, magpies and their relatives. A paper published on September 30th adds to our understanding of this remarkable family of birds.
The Dutch biologist Jörg Massen found that magpies with azure wings in East Asia will share food with other birds of their kind that do not have enough to eat. “They seem to take each other’s perspective into account when making their decision and thus show sympathy,” says Massen from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands.
Helping others has long been considered typical human behavior. We now know that primates and some other social mammals also display what is known as prosocial behavior. “My previous studies have shown that birds sometimes do something for others,” explains Massen. “The question, however, was whether this is a deeply ingrained ‘instinctive’ behavior or whether this behavior is flexible and whether these birds could also take into account how great the other animal’s need is.”
To study prosociality in birds, Massen subjected Azure-Winged Magpies to an experiment. He gave a bird an abundance of mealworms, while other magpies also had access to the coveted food or were given nothing at all. The magpie then had the opportunity to share the mealworms with other members of its own species via a wire mesh.
Massen and his co-authors discovered that the magpies have a tendency to share food with their peers. However, they distinguish whether or not others have something to eat and then take care of this deficiency. “Women mostly shared with others when they had nothing. The males always parted. We think the latter has to do with “advertising”; Look at me generously. For women, the main thing is to help others when they have nothing. “
The birds seem to include each other’s perspective in their decision. The magpies shared the food with others who begged, but also with birds who did not beg. This shows that the magpies could really notice the needs of others even without having to beg, says Massen.
Massen ‘work shows not only that Azure-winged magpies, like humans, can display prosocial behavior, but also that they may be as motivated as humans to do so. “This could indicate that they may be able to empathize with the situation their colleagues are in and act accordingly, possibly with sympathetic motivations. However, more testing is needed to really see if birds are showing empathy and sympathy. “
Many thanks to Utrecht University for this news.
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