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Study finds magpies are smarter when they socialise, and it could be the same for humans

Magpies have a pretty bad reputation in Australia due to their tendency to swoop in spring.

If you have been attacked, you can use this brilliant site to share your experience with the community of magpie victims. The map of attacks shows to what extent these birds are taking over the country.

Magpies might be annoying, but numerous studies have shown they are also super smart.

They have unusually large brains and have shown the ability to use tools and pass the mirror test. One Dutch startup is even teaching the birds how to pick up ciggy butts off the streets.

Now a study has found that when it comes to developing that intelligence, magpies with larger social groups tend to do better.

Researchers from the University of Western Australia and the University of Exeter studied the behaviour of 56 wild magpies living in Perth.

The study tested the magpies’ cognitive ability using a variety of activities that revealed the birds’ spatial awareness, ability to learn, and memory.

The results of the study were published in the journal Nature on Wednesday. The key finding was that magpies living in larger groups were smarter than those in smaller ones.

According to the study’s co-author Dr Benjamin Ashton, the results support “the social intelligence hypothesis”, a theory that links intelligence to the demands of living in large social groups.
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The idea is simple: the larger a social group is, the more complex it will be. Thus, it requires more brain power to cope with all the stuff that’s going on.

“So not only do you have to remember all these individuals, but you have to remember your relationship with them and how to behave appropriately with them,” Ashton told ABC News.

Another finding of the study was that smarter female birds made better mothers. They hatched more eggs and managed to raise more chicks.

On the other hand, some researchers have hypothesised that being part of a large group can actually allow individuals to be less intelligent since they can rely on the group to get things done.

I can certainly relate to this assessment. I’m the kind of person who, if dropped in the forest with nothing, would be dead on the first day.

I’d fail to make shelter, catch no food, and then eat the wrong berries. I’m really enjoying this whole “strength in numbers” thing humans have got going.

About the author

Stefan is an Adelaide-based freelance writer. In his spare time, he plays tennis badly, collects vinyl and brushes up on his Mandarin. Follow Stefan on Twitter

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