Australian Magpie

Scientists at the University of York, working with researchers at Western Sydney University, have shown that the Australian magpie 'dunks' its food in water before eating, a process that appears to be 'copied' by its offspring.

The research, published in the journal Australian Field Ornithology, has the potential to shed more light on the dietary systems of some species of birds and how they response to the defences of their prey.

Food dunking is common behaviour in a number of bird species, but until now had not been observed in the Australian magpie.

Food dunking is thought to be an important process for birds, but it remains unclear as o why some birds do it and some don't. One theory suggests it helps them moisten food to make it more digestible, while other theories claim that it might help make unpalatable insect less toxic to eat.

Eleanor Drinkwater, a PHD student at the University of York's Department of Biology, said, "Food dunking has been seen at least 25 bird species, particularly in birds that have hight cognitive abilities.

"The Australian Magpie is an intelligent animal, however we were not expecting to see dunking displayed by this bird. In a separate study on predator-prey interactions between katydids and Australian Magpies we were observing a family of magpie at a site near Kosciuszko National Park to see what they would do when offered the insect.

"We presented the wild magpie with a local insect called Mountain Katydid, which is thought to be distasteful due to the toxins it emits. The adult magpie first dragged and beat the insect on the ground before carrying it to a nearby puddle, dunking it and thrashing under water."

The adult male appeared to eat the insect underneath a nearby bush, before returning to take a second insect and repeating the action, but this time leaving the 'dunked' insect at the side of the puddle.

The team then observed a juvenile bird, that had been watching the adult male, pick up the discarded insect and mimic the actions of the adult before eating he insect whole.

Ms Drinkwater commented, "Although more research is needed to understand why the bird dunks its food before eating, our initial assumptions are that it responds to the 'nasty tasting' chemical defences of the insect, by dunking it in water and making it more palatable.

"It was exciting to see that this process was copied by the juvenile bird, suggesting that this behaviour could be socially learnt. More research can now be done to determine how common this behaviour is from adult birds through to its offspring."

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