Magpies, jackals and animal altruism

3 Apr

I say, I say: why did the magpie help the hedgehog across the road?

No, it’s not a joke. It happened for real, was caught on a dashcam and the footage uploaded to YouTube. So why did the magpie peck at the hedgehog, not once or twice but repeatedly, to hurry it to the far side of the road and out of harm’s way?

The corvid genus takes in crows, magpies, jays, jackdaws, rooks and ravens. All, insofar as we can define and test for such a thing without anthropocentric bias, show high intelligence. But few corvids  ‘pass’ the mirror test: an indicator, some experts say, of self awareness. In fact few animals ‘pass’ it, period. Of the primates, only chimps and orangutans do so unconditionally.

Cats don’t. Dogs, though often wiser than their owners, don’t either. Ants do some of the time.

Animals that pass the mirror test have large brains relative to body size, and higher levels of empathy and social awareness. You might wonder about ants passing the test, but the brains of some ant species constitutes 15 per cent of body mass

Says the Irish Times:

The mirror test is simple – make a mirror available to the animal and watch how it behaves. When the animal gets used to the mirror, put a mark on part of its body that cannot be viewed without the aid of the mirror. Now observe whether the animal is curious about its reflection and whether it realises that the mark is not part of itself.

Some researchers say only humans and great apes conclusively pass the mirror test, but the following species are generally regarded as capable of doing so – humans, bottlenose dolphins, killer whales, bonobos, orangutans, chimpanzees, elephants, magpies, pigeons, ants and the cleaner wrasse fish. A human will not pass it until two years old. Dogs, cats, horses, parrots, sea lions, octopus and even monkeys have not been shown to pass.

Mirror test results with gorillas are mixed. Gorillas who have had extensive contact with humans come closer to passing the test than gorillas who have had limited contact with humans. But the picture is clouded by the fact that gorillas interpret eye to eye contact as a sign of aggression and may avoid making eye contact with their mirror image.

That last remark, on gorilla etiquette, points to the difficulty of eliminating anthropocentrism. T’was ever thus with our attempts to assess ‘intelligence’ in other species. Our most developed senses, those most central to our understandings of the world and communication thereof, just happen to be vision and hearing. In many species, including canines known for their high social intelligence – which I guess presupposes self awareness – vision and even hearing are not the dominant senses. Smell is. Yet the mirror test implicitly elevates sight above the other four.

Back to that magpie though. Why did it help the hedgehog? Pass. Screeds have been written on altruism in our own and other species.1 But if I and many others are right in viewing altruism as enlightened self interest, we must steer clear of reductivism in reading animal behaviour, and append hefty caveats to what are often no more than educated guesses.

And not always well educated ones.2

None of which stops us being thrilled to bits, as exemplified by that YouTube clip (close to 700k views at time of writing) at stories of cross-species altruism.

Did you hear the one about the jackals who saved badger from python? It too leaves us in need of overhauling our understanding of what motivates those with whom we share this earth, often with lethal reluctance; always with high-handed arrogance.

Maybe the jackals fancied python for supper. Maybe they had cubs close by, and saw the snake but not the badger as a threat. I see a problem with these explanations though. Acting on such calculations wouldn’t the jackals, not known for stupidity, wait for the badger to be asphyxiated and eaten, leaving the python helpless? Conclusion one: its demise can’t have been their prime motive in taking on so dangerous an adversary.

Conclusion two: that curmudgeonly badger might have shown a bit more gratitude!

Another question. If we liked snakes a little more, and warm furry things a little less, might we see things differently? Given our tendency, again anthropocentric, to take sides and attribute blame, might we take a dim view of two such formidable mammals – a jackal’s bite strength is greater than a pit bull terrier’s, while no one in their right mind messes with an enraged honey badger – ganging up to play tug of war with a live python?

(Even if the whole affair did kick off with said python’s excessively enthusiastic embrace. Or did it? Who knows what was happening before the camera was switched on? And are we watching unedited footage? Maybe the snake was minding its own business before being pounced on by Old Brock, who then proceeded to get the worst of it. At which point two passing hoodlums – a right pair of jackals who’d maul their own gran just for the practice – piled in for a spot of ultra-violence before calling it a day. It just goes to show; you gotta mind how you go when reading video evidence. Ask the miners at Orgreave, 1984.)

As for the thesis, which gets my vote, of altruism as reducible (but not crudely) to enlightened self interest, well, we humans sure could use a bit more of that. But then, magpies and jackals have one big advantage over us. They never did buy into the capitalism thing.


And if you call me brother now
Forgive me if I inquire
Just according to whose plan?

When it all comes down to dust
I will kill you if I must
I will help you if I can

When it all comes down to dust
I will help you if I must
I will kill you if I can

Leonard Cohen, Story of Isaac

* * *

  1. Mathematicians and psychologists of cognitive and interpersonal stripe look to ever more complex permutations of the Prisoners Dilemma Game for insights as to when co-operation is, and when it  is not, rational. While their conclusions, especially in the context of Cold War nuclear escalation, are limited by worldviews which do not allow them, on pain of losing funding, to factor in class, useful insights beyond the scope of this post have been gained. Also relevant here is what non behaviourist psychologists call a theory of mind (ravens do well on this). A theory of mind allows us to see things as others do. Its investigation led to an elegant and much repeated experiment. Check out the Sally-Anne test.
  2. I once read of a highly socialised species of small monkeys. This particular clan, which posted sentries to free up their fellows for other activities, had been observed over a long period. The sentries had specific alarm signals for predators, each of whose MO required a different response. The alarm for eagles differed from that for snakes, and differed again for big cats. One day a sentry, aware of an eagle coming in lower than usual, gave the call for a leopard. Did it compute that the eagle call would here trigger the wrong evasion tactics? Had the observers miscategorised the alarm calls? Either way, the sentry’s behaviour, defying previous understandings but suggesting greater reasoning capacity than had been suspected, spoke to high mental adaptability.

6 Replies to “Magpies, jackals and animal altruism

  1. Hi Phil
    Watching the birds feed on the lawn and hanging feeders is a daily pleasure but of similar interest is the bird’s feeding competition behaviour along with some bird and garden mammal competitions.

    Most of their behavoiur involves scaring other animals away by a swoop-in or a rush-in to the feeding area. Most of the direct attacks seem to be by the crows on smaller birds and within the same bird species, but we can speculate that in-species competition has more to it than just feeding. The noble animal in this shoulder and elbow tussling are the pidgeons, they seem indifferent to and do not participate in swoop-ins and rush-ins to others. Maybe the choice of a dove as the sign of peace is based in part on their co-habiting behaviour?

    My favourites are the gang (parliament) of magpies that hang around the gardens together. Some have mastered hanging on to the small bird feeders while others are on the ground below feeding on dropped food. The most amusing harressment of competitor feeders is the magpies towards the rat from under the shed, the magpies skip up behind the rat to scare it, while one magpie followed the rat pecking the rat’s tail every time the rat stopped to feed until it ran off. Bird power!!!

    Take care

    • I see you sneaked in the collective noun for magpies. It’s a good ‘un – up there with a murder of crows and a pomposity of professors.

      At foot of our garden, where the end wall of another house stands, two magpies built a nest in a tall tree. From our upper storey window it’s just twenty yards away and only a little higher. I’ve been snapping the activity – will post pictures soon – but last Saturday disaster struck. The house opposite shielded the nest from our prevailing west winds but we recently had a spell of stiff southerlies. After taking out two panels of the fence running east to west to divide our garden from next door’s, they carried off the nest.

      Now the plucky pair are rebuilding it in the very same spot.

  2. Perhaps we should introduce some innovation to this subject. What say you to: An Avarice of politicians, a Twist of Lawyers, a Cock and Bull of Journalists, an Aggression of US Presidents, a Block of Bureaucrats. Not as witty as the ‘Wunch’ (which is not my invention) – but I’m sure some of your readers can do even better.

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