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Magpies' unexpected reaction to GPS trackers may have revealed altruism in the birds

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Birds in Australia have outsmarted the scientists hoping to study them. The birds, known as Australian magpies, were fitted with GPS tracking harnesses.

DOMINIQUE POTVIN: We fit the harnesses on. They fit well. The magpies flew away fine, and we were, you know, all set to go.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Dominique Potvin is a behavioral ecologist at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia. She says the aim was to study the birds' social structures and behavior. But the magpies had something else in mind.

POTVIN: About 10 minutes after we had put the tracker on, a non-tracked individual came over and started pecking at the tracker of another bird.

PFEIFFER: Despite the bird's interference, the team remained confident, but again and again, magpie reinforcements showed up to help. And lo and behold...

POTVIN: Ten minutes later, that tracker fell off onto the roof of a building, and we never saw it again.

PFEIFFER: Within days, the birds had pecked off all five of the researchers' GPS devices.

POTVIN: We were devastated, but at the same time, we knew that we were watching something that was different.

SHAPIRO: Writing in the journal Australian Field Ornithology, Potvin's team says the magpies were using cooperative behavior and some degree of problem-solving to pull this off.

POTVIN: The bird helping out didn't have a tracker, so it was not a case of, you scratch my back; I'll scratch yours. It was completely altruistic. They weren't getting anything in return, really.

SIMONE PIKA: I think we have to be a bit careful with the interpretation. It could be indeed, yeah, this is cooperative behavior. It could be it's altruistic behavior.

PFEIFFER: Simone Pika is a cognitive biologist at the University of Osnabruck in Germany. She was intrigued by the results but cautions there could be a simpler answer.

PIKA: It could just be that the birds themselves - they are attracted of the object. And so they try to go for it. They go after the harness. They pick around, and then they manage to get rid of the harness. And it has nothing to do that they really want to help the other individual.

PFEIFFER: Dominique Potvin in Australia says further work could tease apart what the birds' motivation is and if it's truly altruism at play.

SHAPIRO: But the study made one thing clear. The magpies do not like these tracker harnesses. So Potvin says they won't use them again in magpies, at least.

POTVIN: We would really love to continue with our cool technology, though, and test it out. So we're looking at some species of lizard that we might put a tracker on, and they won't cooperate to take them off. No offense to lizards - I love them, but they're just not as smart as magpies.

PFEIFFER: We'll have to see what happens. After all, as this study shows, science is often full of surprises. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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