As creatures that have been a part of our histories and folklore, magpies possess a dual identity: one shaped by myths and the other by science.
Historical Beliefs and Myths
Across different cultures, magpies have taken on varied symbolic roles. In Western tales, they’re often painted as cunning tricksters or omens of good and bad fortune. The age-old rhyme, “One for sorrow, two for joy,” which counts the number of magpies seen to predict one’s fate, underscores their mythical stature. In contrast, Eastern traditions, especially in China, view magpies as harbingers of joy and happiness, often associated with the tale of two star-crossed lovers represented by the stars Altair and Vega, meeting once a year with the magpie’s help.
Magpies aren’t just about myths. They’re among the few non-mammalian species to have passed the mirror test—a benchmark in animal cognition that tests an individual’s ability to recognize itself in a reflection, indicating a certain level of self-awareness. Additionally, their problem-solving skills have been showcased in various experiments, such as those involving hidden food items or complex foraging tasks like in the video at the start of the article. These findings place magpies in an elite group of animals with advanced cognitive capacities.
Tool Use, Self-recognition, and Problem-solving
Diving deeper into their intelligence, magpies have demonstrated an ability to use tools, a trait once believed to be exclusive to humans and primates. From using leaves to gather food to crafting sticks for probing into crevices, their inventiveness is evident. Beyond tool use, their aforementioned success in the mirror test speaks volumes about their self-recognition. And, when faced with challenges, from evading predators to locating food, magpies display strategic problem-solving abilities, often observing, learning, and then executing a plan.
Much like humans, magpies thrive in social environments. They’re known to live in organized groups, each with a hierarchy, roles, and responsibilities. This communal nature facilitates learning and protection. Young magpies often “apprentice” with older ones, observing and mimicking behaviors crucial for survival. Furthermore, their vocalizations, rich in tone and variation, aren’t just calls but a complex language that conveys emotions, warnings, and information.