Good science and magpies

Appealing science stuff in the news this week.

  • The Guardian’s science podcast is about music. Some of the speakers have voices that could be marketed as aural Mogadon. However, if you can stay awake, the debate is interesting.
  • Magpies can see themselves in the mirror.

    Apart from the interesting implications that magpies have some sense of self that’s not completely unlike ours, this is just a beautiful experiment. So elegant in terms of lateral thinking about testing a hypothesis.

    Imagine that you were wondering if magpies could see themselves in a mirror. How would you find out?
    The answer is to put coloured sticky tabs on parts of magpies that they can’t normally see. Then, place the magpies in front of mirrors. The magpies then start noticing the sticky tabs that they previously ignored and make the effort to remove them.

The elegant experiment prompts me to tell my own ludicrous magpie story. There’s no elegance in it. There’s no testable hypothesis. I haven’t even got any evidence that it happened. (I tried to aim my webcam out of the window but it’s useless enough even for its normal webcamming purpose. It just got glare off the glass and I couldn’t focus it properly.)

On a chimney behind my yard, there was a nest, with magpie chicks in it. This was really interesting. (It made a welcome change from watching rats sneak under the yard door, for a start.) I could watch the magpie-lings getting fed, growing bigger and noisier every time I saw them.

A feral tabby cat usually turns up and whines at my back door on Sunday afternoons. He mainly calls round to get warm and dry and to lie on a couch.

He’s the most pampered “feral” cat imaginable. He must have at least seven houses on his round. (Lots of people feed feral cats around here, mainly on account of the rats mentioned above.) If he doesn’t like the flavour of the cat food he’s given, he licks off the gravy/jelly then goes back to rooting through garbage. If he likes it, he demands more, plus a few hours’ sleep on the couch. He’s a very vocal cat, and very affectionate. (Neither attribute would seem like much of a survival strategy for a feral cat, but they certainly work for a cat who’s learned that meowing at humans, purring and rubbing against human legs, is the fastest way to get food and warmth.)

This situation suits me. It combines the occasional pleasure of having a pet with a complete absence of the need to be responsible for it.

A few weeks ago, I noticed him standing in the yard with a furious magpie. I kid you not. The magpie was facing him off – standing about 2 feet away from him – and cawing at him, deafeningly. The cat was neither attacking the magpie nor makng for an exit. He was just cowering, in a defeated stance looking down at the floor.

I watched this for a few minutes and nothing changed. I looked back a few minutes later and the two animals were both on top of the yard wall, doing the same things – shouting in magpie language and cringing in cat body language. (Anthropomorphising, that cat looked damn guilty.)

I looked up at the nest and there were no chicks there. I formed the untestable hypothesis that the magpie was kicking off because the cat had eaten its chicks and that the cat was accepting the magpie’s complaints, on the grounds that it might indeed have done something to get it in trouble.

I lost interest that day. There’s only so long you can wonder what’s going on between a cat and a magpie.

The next weekend, the feral cat turned up as usual. But – in the company of the bloody magpie. The two came into the yard together. The magpie waited in a corner while I opened a pouch of cat food. When the cat had finished eating, they left together.

Disappointingly, this must have been just an early summer friendship. Since then, the cat’s only called round on its own, (Maybe, the cat had incurred some sort of blood debt to the bird and was paying him off in shared plunder. Maybe, the cat finally ate it….)