There’s this test.

It was Charles Darwin who thought of it first. He was at this zoo one day, and had had the presence of mind to bring along a mirror with him. And he betook himself to the orangutan cage, and he held up the mirror.

He was trying to find out: was the orangutan self-aware?

The creature made a few aggressive faces. Whether scaring a perceived intruder or playing faces in the mirror, Darwin could not say.

This set psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr thinking, a century or so later, around 1970. He replicated Darwin’s experiment with two young male and two young female chimpanzees.

After two days alone, a chimpanzee was shown its reflection in a mirror. At first, the chimps reacted very much as Darwin’s orangutan had done: but gradually they became at home with their new reflection. They used it for their own purposes. They blew bubbles. They picked their noses. They made a few relaxed faces.

They recognised that the creature in the mirror was them.

Self awareness: the awareness that one is a personality moving through time; an understanding of one’s inner being, and one’s outer effects;  an image of what we look like;  an empowerment to act; and an awareness of  our own character, strengths, weaknesses, desires. One’s very wellbeing.

Humans fail the mirror test until they are around 18 months old.

And someone else has managed to pass the mirror test. Someone else has walked through the looking-glass to reveal that they could be self aware.

Enter Gertie, Goldie, Schatzi, Lilly and Harvey: five magpies.

Helmut Prior, Ariane Schwarz and  Onur Gunturkun worked with these five magpies and mirrors, and reported their findings* in 2008 to the journal PLoS Biology.

They found that magpies -on some occasions – exhibited behaviour which showed they identified the reflection as themselves and could use it to locate a planted mark, preening it to remove it.

It is a seven-league step from there to declaring the magpie has self-awareness; but it’s an interesting thought, isn’t it?

Very clever bird , the magpie. Not liked, at least not here in England, where one is said to bring sorrow unless you salute him and ask after his family.

Is it any accident, I wonder, that magpies have a reputation for garnering little items of interest?

The most interesting people I know have the same proclivity. That curiosity; the ability to see a small shiny trinket, or a nugget of information,  as the root of endless possibility: it’s a powerful, and endearing, trait.

My father and mother popped in this afternoon.

As my parents walked in they brought with them a fresh Spring breeze. My mother’s cloud is still there, but it has lifted a little and we are all thanking our stars and relishing our time with her.

The two of them sat down at the table and related their days. Dad had rescued three stout pieces of timber from destruction, from a neighbour, and had taken out various nails and metal appendages.

His eyes shone as he told me they would be perfect for his new radio aerial thingummy.

And here reception becomes hazy. Occasionally, as my father talks about his projects in the world of amateur radio and morse, I grasp it for about as long as he talks. And then he potters off to conquer the airwaves and I think, hold on – what was that thing we were just talking about?

I think the wood will be the frame for an aerial which makes radio reception clearer. It might have something to do with a repeater.

Time will tell.

We talked across the kitchen table, caught up with news, until Felix’s dinner could wait no more. My parents got up to go, and we conversed our way in stately fashion out of the kitchen, down the hall and out of the door.

Whereupon my father uttered a happy exclamation. He stooped down to the floor and picked up a small discarded coiled spring.

“That,” he pronounced, “could come in very useful indeed.”

And, triumphant, he bore the spring off. I have no earthly idea what he was going to do with it. I would wager performing flea circus was not going to be on the agenda.

As my parents pottered off down the drive, my mother stopped and exclaimed in surprise. She was looking intently at the metalled surface. I trawled my mind for possibilities as to what she might be about to say: my mind drew a blank.

“Katie,” she said, (for that is what she calls me,) “Look at this! You have the most interesting stone buried in your drive!”

It is pictured above. You must be the judge.

Final proof that my parents are exuberant, incorrigible, clever magpies.

*Mirror-Induced Behavior in the Magpie (Pica pica): Evidence of Self-Recognition

Helmut Prior, Ariane Schwarz, Onur Gunturkun   Institut fur Psychologie, Goethe-Universitat, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, Institut fur Kognitive Neurowissenschaften, Biopsychologie, Ruhr-Universitat Bochum, Bochum, Germany


52 thoughts on “Magpie

  1. I’m so glad there is an improvement for your mum.

    As for your dad, will it be for the frame for the watsit for chatting to Oshi in Japan, or will it be the starting point for a poem? Who knows?

  2. That was exactly the kind of thing my mum would have noticed – patterns, a random strange thing, a quirky piece of information, she picked them all up and enriched our childhood with them.

  3. So pleased to hear that the cloud has lifted a little for your mother. You must get your powers of observation and awareness from them. My eldest son is a geologist, and so I have picked up snippets of information from him, and I believe that stone to be a conglomerate. However, I am happy to stand corrected.

    1. I haven’t looked into parakeets at at yet, Carl: apparently everyone, aware or not, bashes heck out of the mirror at the beginning, so I guess the parakeet is true to form 🙂

  4. Your family seem so familiar to me- the ‘goodbyes’ taking as long as the actual ‘visit’. A warm, enlightening afternoon: may there be many, many of those ahead 🙂

  5. Also glad to hear your Mom’s cloud has lifted somewhat. What an interesting visit from your Mom and Dad and I guess we all only pay just a bit of attention to what our parents are saying when they go on about their projects. “hold on – what was that thing we were just talking about?”

    That just struck me funny as I do the same thing with my Mom, she’ll go on about some church stuff for a while and talk about people I have never met and wonder why I don’t know them. ??!!

    OK, I examined the rocks in your driveway and guess the only one I found that is interesting is the one with a miniature Bigfoot print on it. There apparently was a pygmy Sasquatch clan in your area of the universe prior to your arrival.

  6. Encouraging news about your mom, Kate. I smiled a bit at this as it reminds me of, er, umm, Tom and I and are comings in and goings out behavior.

    18 months. At 18 months I gave Kezzie a little book with a mirror in it. She took it and proceeded to find herself in the mirror, slathering it with kisses. She finds the book and brings it to me, kissing her self image still, each time I see her. Ah, my little magpie.

  7. Oh, i believe I may be a bit of a magpie from the collection point of view. An odd metal bolt, a shell, and agate that has caught the light just perfectly.

  8. Yes, very good to hear good bits about your mother.

    My dad had an amateur radio tower on the side of our house, as well. Its only use for me was facilitating climbing on the roof when no one was looking. Ultimately though, you now having me thinking about Descartes…

    Great provocative, yet endearing post as usual, (don’t say Katie, don’t say Katie) Kate…

  9. Happy to hear that cloud “has lifted a little” for your Mom. I fully recognize the tendency to just half listen as someone goes on a bit about things which seem unimportant to me, but there are usually hidden nuggets even in those topics, IF we stop to think about them.

    As for that nugget in your drive….I immediately was transported back to my boys’ earliest video games and PacMan (with a full mouth) jumped right out of your photo. What a strange thought!

    I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a magpie, but imagine they must be much like the crow in their love of shiny things. I found the magpies here to be quite charming and “chatty.” 🙂

    1. Karen, now I have learned something new! Naively I thought magpies were something we all had in common!

      They’re noisy souls. Pushy extroverts with flash suits.

      I love them 🙂

  10. Here’s to a continuing lifting of the mists surrounding your mom, Kate.

    I fear I treat both my parents poorly in the listening department. Dad tells the same stories over and over and over again, and Mom talks about people I don’t (or barely) know, sharing all these intricate details of their lives like I should care all about it. This hit me hard, because my Dad is in the hospital today. Nothing serious. Just appendicitis. But, I’m still emotional about it.

    1. Oh, Andra, so sorry to hear that! When my father had a major heart op the grown up detached woman went away. I couldn’t even catch a simple train home from London. Kept looking at the sunset and wanting him to be able to see it. Glad indeed that your Dad’s appendicitis is under control: that film of him was just fabulous- what an amazing character! Born storyteller, though as I admitted to you I couldn’t get a hold on the accent. All our thoughts are with him in hospital. They’re big characters, these fathers.

  11. Fascinating post, Kate: Darwin to Gallup Jr, chimps to magpies to humans… very interesting indeed, how self-awareness develops, in whom, and to what extent. So glad your mom’s showing signs of improvement.

  12. Glad you’re mom’s cloud is drifting off. Good to hear.

    Tigger used to confuse his reflection in the mirror with that of another cat invading his territory. He would arch his back, and bounce from side to side (like a boxer readying for a match), in a show of “I’m ready.”

    Once he realized it was him, he lost all interest.

    Maybe cats are not quite as narcissistic as we tend to believe. 😉

    I didn’t know your dad is a Ham.

    My dad lived for his short wave communications around the globe ~ in morse, or not. Communication is his life’s blood ~ as an engineer for Bell Labs (and later AT&T), he helped launch Telstar while we watched him on the telly, and he traveled around the globe trying to improve communications between one country and the next ~ his travels took him to Europe, China, South America, Australia, Africa . . . all in an effort to band us together a bit tighter.

  13. That IS an interesting stone! I don’t like stuff (despite appearances to the contrary) but I love thoughts, words, ideas, snippets, turns of phrase, leitmotifs of music… these I collect and pocket away for later use. A magpie of the mind, I suppose.

    I hope this visit means things are looking up for your mother, Kate.

    1. They are a little, Cameron, thanks. A few hard months ahead but the long term looks better.

      My best friends- including Phil – and indeed, Maddie and Felix- are all magpies of the mind. A wonderful way to live life.

  14. I have missed something, Kate, about your mother, but now I’m catching up, I wish her well on the journey as the cloud lifts.

    Small things like stones in driveways catch my eye, too. \but I’m not so good at seeing the bigger picture…

    I wonder what your Dad will do with his Magpie’s Spring?

    1. Thanks for those good wishes, Pseu. I haven’t filled in a lot of detail about Mum here, but we’ve all had a bit of a scare- and though we’ve stepped back from the brink, it will still need complex surgery to correct.

      I have never found it easy to predict what my father will do next 🙂 His chief weapon is surprise…

  15. How could we not like this one, Kate. Do you know, I wondered if that stone would find its way into your blog, somewhere in the back of my mind.
    Thanks Kate. Love Dad

  16. Dear Kate,
    Good news about your mom. As to the posting that introduced self-awareness in magpie and orangutan and Penny’s comment about Kezzie, I suggest that you invite your parents to read it. The posting is a tribute to them. They have raised a magpie in you–someone who delights in learning and who finds wonder in the grain of sand and the wildflower.


  17. A wonderful telling. The stone is most interesting…if it could be lifted, I’d drill a hole and wear it on a cord. Magpies..loved the segway to your parents…and then, voila, your father pops in again, digital time (smile). You’ve a sweet life; enjoy ~

  18. I am with your mother on your stones -birds of a feather and i like very much both of your magpie parents. D’em stones like d’em bones hold a great message and story of which came this post. I caught your drift load and clear.

    1. I think a lot of us are magpies here in the blogosphere, Hudson 🙂 It’s good to hear from like-minded people out there all over the world who feel very similarly to us 🙂

  19. Here I was cruising along thinking how clever people are to even study magpies in the first place…then you round the corner! I am so glad the cloud may have lost some of its persistence, and with your parents’ zest for life–with interests that show natural curiosity, you’ve explained YOU! We now have a little inkling into how Kate evolved into the caretaker of small things made exquisite. I’ve loved stories of your family from the beginning…and now I know a bit more about your lovely parents. Debra

  20. I can think of all sorts of interesting things your father could be doing with the wooden frame and a coiled spring 🙂

    Many birds are self aware, though most need a little time to actually show it because they have to adapt their behaviour to the new situation set before them and most human experimenters don’t allow the time necessary to judge this properly. If they did I suspect that most parrots and parakeets, including that favourite household pet, the Budgie, would pass the test.

  21. Hmm, human magpies, so true. Animals may be different from us and their cleverness may be a different type of cleverness to ours but they’re still pretty amazing. Hey, it takes a human 18 months to learn something so ‘basic’! 😉

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