The Strange-ness: Magpies

Corvidae is a scientific designation for a family of birds which includes crows, ravens, jays (like blue jays), magpies, and several more birds. These “corvids” arguably are some of the smartest animals on the planet — not just the smartest of birds, but among the smartest of all earthly life.

One of the leaders of the family is the magpie; with the European magpies seeming to show higher intelligence than the North American magpies. These birds’ demonstrated abilities include some shared by few on the planet:

  • self-awareness shown in mirror tests
  • tool-making ability
  • social thinking, reasoning/counting, and imagination
  • high-level thought and problem solving
  • empathy and grief

In some corvids, their intelligence rivals that of some primates (ape family).

Expert Opinions

A University of Colorado scholar believes these birds are capable of feeling complex emotions like grief. Marc Bekoff  is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado-Boulder.  He lectures on animal behavior, animal mindss, and compassionate conservation.  His article on magpies and grief may be found here (PBS site).

Bekoff and Jane Goodall co-founded Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals: Citizens for Responsible Animal Behavior Studies, online at Marc Bekoff’s website is

According to Science writer Jennifer Ackerman in a Scientific American article by Gareth Cook:

Birds have a number of mental skills that match those of primates—solving problems, crafting tools, planning ahead for future events, even considering another being’s state of mind. They can do these things even though their brains are a fraction of the size of a primate’s. This is especially true of parrots and corvids, the family that includes crows, ravens, magpies, and jays.

An Audubon article by John Marzluff states:

All corvids have relatively big brains for their size. But while a seed storer like a Pinyon Jay or a nutcracker has a huge hippocampus—a region involved in memory—crows and ravens are more like primates. They have exceptionally large forebrains, the domain of  analytical thought, higher-level sensory processing, and flexible behavior. (Marzluff calls them flying monkeys.)

Finally, consider this Welcome Wildlife article:

Magpies* (pronounced like it’s spelled) can recognize themselves in a mirror — the only other animals known to share this ability are Chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants and humans of about two years of age and older… Magpies are also known for holding “funerals” for a fallen friend, including “bouquets” of grasses.

So the next time that you see a magpie — or a crow, raven, or other corvid — check out what it’s doing. It’s behavior may just remind you of a human you know.

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About Kay Whatley 2309 Articles
Kay Whatley serves as Editor and Reporter with The Grey Area News. Kay is a published author with over 20 years of experience in the publishing industry. Kay Whatley is wife to Frank Whatley, founder of The Grey Area™ newspaper and The Grey Area News online news website.