Magpies Make Decisions Faster if Humans Are Looking at Them Say Scientists

Posted on June 7, 2013

Black Billed Magpie


Scientists from Seoul National University say they have found that magpies make decisions faster when humans are looking directly at them. The researchers approached foraging magpies in the unusual study. Two researchers would approach the magpies and would look directly at them or would not look at them as they approached. A black billed magpie is pictured above.

When researchers looked directly at the foraging magpies, the magpies made decisions faster regardless of whether the final decision was to return to foraging or to fly away and whether the stress or danger perceived by a magpie was low or high. The researchers say that when the approaching pair of humans did not look at the magpies, the decision to escape or not was taken with a delay. The researchers say this means that even if the magpies did not perceive the humans as dangerous they still made a faster decision (about whether or not to stay and continue foraging) when humans were looking at them.

Dr. Sang-im Lee, the leader of magpie research team and the first author of the paper, said in a statement, "We started this study from our experience. For a long time we had this impression that somehow magpies know that we are watching them because they often fly away from us when we observe them. But when we don't observe them, we can pass them pretty close-by but they don't fly away!"

The magpie research was published here in PLoS One.

Photo: P.G.Jablonski