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Eastern Kingbird by Mike Benkis

‘Bird brains’ outwit us, again

Photo of juvenile Black-billed magpie sitting on deer skull and antlers, by Joshua Pelta Heller.

Waaay back in 1785, Scottish poet Robert Burns observed that, “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men Gang aft agley.” 

In mid-July of this year, Emily Anthes of the New York Times reported that sharp metal pins, arrayed in strips and designed to prevent birds from landing on or nesting among buildings started disappearing from the roof of a hospital in Antwerp, Belgium, in 2021. 

Biologist Auke-Florian Hiemstra, working on his Ph.D. at Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands, investigated after hearing about a strange bird’s nest near the hospital. “Nestled near the top of a sugar maple tree was a Eurasian Magpie nest that resembled a cyberpunk porcupine, with thin metal rods sticking out in every direction,” Anthes wrote.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Hiemstra told Anthes. “These are birds making a nest with anti-bird spikes.

“They’re outsmarting us,” he said. “We’re trying to get rid of birds, the birds are collecting our metal spikes and actually making more birds in these nests. I think it’s just a brilliant comeback.” Hiemstra and his colleagues have published their findings in the journal Deinsea.

In her story, Anthes interviews other avian experts, such as Mark Mainwaring, at Bangor University in Wales. She learned that members of the Corvid family, such as Magpies and Crows, are admired widely for their problem-solving skills. “It shows just how intuitive these birds are, and it shows a certain amount of flexibility to go out and find these new materials and use them,” Mainwaring said.

Photo of Black-billed Magpie by Joshua Pelter Heller.

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