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….)

Wild things

What is the best survival strategy for wild animals? The evidence suggests that it’s being hated by humans. There is nothing like a programme to bring any species’ numbers down to boost the population. This seems to bode ill for pandas and polar bears, but it’s working out fine for for magpies, rats, mice, pigeons, flies and fleas.

On the Guardian website, Graham Holliday says that there’s a war on wild boar in France.

In the UK guidance by Defra on how to cull the growing wild boar population was published in February. The British government has decided against a state-led cull saying that the damage currently caused by wild boar is too minimal to be of concern, but some people in France are seriously worried.

There are 1,000 feral boar in the UK, apparently. DEFRA have given advice on how to kill them, which doesn’t seem too hands-off to me, but, then, I haven’t read the guidance.

The French are apparently taking the threat of wild boar rampaging through their celtic villages, snuffling their magic potion and overturning their roundhouses seriously. Oh sorry, that was in Asterisk.

And if you read the Observer article about the French, it seems their imaginary wild boar rampages caused

…. an estimated 20,000 car accidents a year involving the animals and hundreds of millions of pounds of damage to crops and property

To reference another meat animal – Bull. Those figures are so blatantly spurious, they are hardly worth challenging.

The surprising thing is how many people see wild creatures as threats to people, rather than welcoming them as signs that we still haven’t managed to destroy the ecosystems that support us..

One commenter (Trxr) says

where you get the munters (including certain celebs who should concentrate on paying their divorce settlements to their temporary trophy-wives) screaming about a roo cull here in Australia. There’s a lot more than a thousand of the things roaming about here.

Another commenter (the aptly monikered “Ishouldapologise”) on the Guardian article says, in what I assume to be a sarcastic way:

Bring back the Weald, I say. Bring back the bears and the wolves and the wildcats. Bring back the eagles and the adders and packs of wild dogs. Bring back a little magic into this overfarmed country. Who cares if the occasional tourist or country inhabitant gets killed or eaten. That’s what the same people want for Africa and the Amazon, don’t they.

Well, yes, actually, that sounds like a pretty good idea to me.

It is really lucky – in terms of survival of some species, if not biodiversity – that all the creatures we hate and fear seem to thrive on our opposition if they don’t get made extinct. Any creatures that we like seem to be going extinct in direct proportion to how much we value them. Except for pets, but I doubt that the pet species could survive for long without Pedigree Chum and Whiskas.

One BBC writer on hating magpies on the grounds of an almost universal UK superstition:

The sight of another lone magpie still stops me short. Far from wanting the numbers to halve, I instantly want them to double.

Maybe the point is relevant in a wider context. Our desire to wipe out certain wild species might just serve to double their numbers, following some obscure law of nature….