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Study: Magpies share food with less fortunate others

share food
An Azure-winged Magpie in Beijing, China. Photo by Feng Yu/Shutterstock

In a recent “Amazing Birds” column, our founding editor, Eldon Greij, described the intelligence of the world’s corvids — crows, ravens, jays, magpies, and their relatives. A paper published on September 30 adds to our understanding of this remarkable avian family.

Dutch biologist Jorg Massen found that Azure-winged Magpies of eastern Asia will share food with other birds of their species that do not have enough to eat. “They seem to take each other’s perspective into account in their decision and thus seem to show sympathy,” says Massen, of Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

Helping others has long been regarded as typical human behavior. Nowadays we know that primates and some other social mammals also show so-called prosocial behavior. “My earlier research has shown that birds, too, sometimes do something for someone else,” Massen explains. “The question was, however, whether this is ‘instinctive’ behavior that is ingrained, or whether this behavior is flexible, and whether these birds might also take into account how great the need of the other animal is.”

To investigate prosociality in birds, Massen subjected Azure-winged Magpies to an experiment. He gave one bird an abundance of mealworms while other magpies also had access to the highly desired food or were given nothing at all. The magpie then had the opportunity to share the portion of mealworms with conspecifics through a wire-mesh screen.

Massen and his co-authors discovered that the magpies are inclined to share food with their peers. They differentiate, however, between whether others have food or do not have food, and subsequently cater to that lack. “Females mainly shared with the others if they had nothing. The males always shared. We think the latter has to do with ‘advertisement;’ look at me being generous. With the females it’s mainly to help the other if they have nothing.”

The birds seem to include the perspective of the other in their decision. The magpies shared food with others that were begging but also with birds that did not beg. This shows that the magpies might truly notice the need of others, even without begging behavior, says Massen.

Massen’s work not only shows that Azure-winged Magpies can exhibit prosocial behavior just like people, but also that they may well have the same motivation as people have to do so. “This could indicate that they may be able to empathize with the situation in which their peers find themselves and act accordingly, perhaps with sympathetic motivations. Further tests are however needed to truly investigate whether birds show empathy and sympathy.”

Thanks to Utrecht University for providing this news.

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