Redefining collaborative research.
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.