The Birds That Didn’t Want to be Tracked

When you go to many modern-day websites, there’s a decent chance you’ll see a message asking you to “accept all cookies,” like the one seen here. Cookies allow website owners to track your activity on their website and, to a limited degree, on other websites as well. And many users don’t want to be tracked — we value our privacy, and it’s kind of creepy if you think about it.

And apparently, we’re not alone. Some birds don’t like to be tracked, either. (Well, kind of.) And they’ll work together to do something about it.

In 2022, researchers in Australia published a study that they didn’t expect to, at least, not when they set out to do their initial research. As ABC News Australia reported, the team “attached tiny, backpack-like tracking devices to five Australian magpies [ . . . ] to learn more about the movement and social dynamics of these highly intelligent birds, and to test these new, durable and reusable devices.” The fact that the trackers were so tiny was, itself, an innovative solution to a notable problem (if you care about tracking magpies, at least); as Gizmodo noted, “most trackers are too big to fit on small and medium sized birds, and small trackers tend to be limited when it comes to data storage, battery life, and reusability.” These new trackers solved those problems — they only weighed a gram or so and could recharge and transmit data wirelessly. And the trackers were designed to be easily removed with a magnet; if you didn’t have one available, as one member of the research team explained to Gizmodo, you could take it off with “some really good scissors.”

Or so they thought.

As Smithsonian Magazine reported, “within ten minutes of placing the tracking device on the fifth experimentee, one clever female magpie without a tracker began picking at the harness of another younger bird.” No magnets, no scissors, just her beak. And it worked. The bird was able to free her compatriot. And within a few days, the birds had removed all the trackers from their fellow magpies.

The research team didn’t think that the birds were actually trying to avoid being tracked — while magpies are known to be smart, they’re not that smart. As Gizmodo noted, “it’s likely that the tracking device was perceived as a parasite that needed to be removed.” But even then, that’s advanced behavior from the magpies, as removing the tracker from another bird yields no benefit to the one doing the removal. The research team concluded that the birds may be acting altruistically — helping each other out without the expectation of any sort of upside for them. That’s common among people but rare elsewhere in the animal world, and there are alternative theories as to what the birds were up to. So more research is needed.

But one thing was clear: as one of the researchers told NPR, “science is often full of surprises.” Sometimes, your experiments go in directions you never expected, and you discover something you never would have considered looking for.

Bonus fact: In general, it’s a good idea to wear a helmet while riding a bicycle — head injuries are no joke! But it’s doubly a good idea if you’re bike riding in Australia in September and October. Why? Magpies! The Australian magpie is usually a docile bird but, for a few weeks in the spring, as The Leader explains, “they become very protective of their chicks and can swoop on people passing their nests.” And for some reason, people on bikes attract the birds rather often. The birds are usually just trying to scare away a threat and mean no harm, but it can be scary to have a magpie swoop down on you, so some people even put spikes on their helmets, as seen at that link, to help keep the birds away.

From the Archives: The Cheetos Challenge: Magpies fighting over junk food.