The Missing Magpies

Redefining collaborative research.

black and white bird on brown tree branch

Today, there are magpies singing.  Loud, proud, and magnificent, you can hear them if they are near you. But there are some who prefer to get away, and I wanted to tell you about these magpies. We wanted to hear them. We were compelled by their song. You can’t hear the complexity of those notes––over three hundred, we estimated–– without wondering about the brains of the creatures that hold them in place.

It is said that these birds can remember up to thirty specific faces. They remember well whomever has caused them trouble in the past, and only attack these one or two people in their region. If the number of people in their vicinity surpasses thirty, they start stereotyping. For example, they are known to be biased against preadolescent boys. They are also known to hold funerals for their dead. Who wouldn’t want to follow? We could no longer settle for mere appreciation at a distance. We wanted the bird’s-eye view. We wanted bird’s ears, too. We meant to track them, record their private exchanges, and publish our findings to international acclaim.

It was a simple device, but it took countless trials to get the right fit. We didn’t want to hurt them. It was tiny enough that they wouldn’t even feel it. It was also impossible for a bird to remove one from their body once it was on. It took our team of experts six months to get these fitted.

It took the birds three days to get them off. They helped each other. It took one twenty minutes of feeling around to find the weak spot, a single clasp at the back, barely a millimeter in length. One clip with a beak and it was off.  

So now we can’t hear them. At first, this made us very depressed. What a colossal failure, we thought. But then we began to think that the magpies were making an interesting point, and that we almost missed it, stuck as we were on the lost data. Proud creatures, they wanted nothing to do with being data, but this is not to say that they were unwilling collaborators.

With pitch-perfect humor, they alerted us to an obvious flaw in the design of our study. We were asking the wrong questions, and the worst among these was about how much of their music we might capture. 


Inspired by this article in the New York Times, “Australia’s Clever Birds Did Not Consent to This Science Experiment,” by Anthony Ham.

Author: Stacey C. Johnson

I keep watch and listen, mostly in dark places.

4 thoughts on “The Missing Magpies”

  1. What a delightful post, Stacey. Thank you for sharing it. I get quite a lot of magpies in my garden, not always in pairs as is often expected. I love their song. It’s just beautiful, and I can understand why people want to capture this, although I’m not sure humans should have that much close contact with wild birds (or wild anything else, come to that). I often wonder what wild creatures of any sort think about as it’s been proven that they can ‘speak’ to each other. They’re pretty smart to get the devices off, and the fact that one bird helped another remove these shows that their little brains are capable of more than we give them credit for. This is a really interesting topic. I was going to read the article you shared, but unfortunately, the screen told me I’d run out of free views of this paper and I had to subscribe and pay to read future articles which is a shame. Still, there are plenty of links that you share that I can access, so not to worry. Thanks too for your patience in waiting until I managed to catch up with you to read your post and leave you a comment. Phew! That was a long comment – the story of my life 😉. X

    1. Ellie! Thank you for this generous comment. It always makes me smile to see your name. Thanks for letting me know that you ran into a paywall; I’ll aim to keep that in mind w/ future links. Love to you!

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