Australian magpie 'dunks' its food before eating, researchers find

September 7, 2017

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

The research could potentially shed more light on the dietary systems of some and how they respond to the defences of its prey.

Food dunking is common behaviour in a range of bird species, but has never been observed in the Australian Magpie before. Not only was it observed in the adult bird, but the offspring were seen to copy the 'dunking' process.

Dunking is thought to be an important food-process for birds, but it remains unclear as to why some birds do this and some do not. One theory is that it helps moisten the food to make it more digestible and other theories suggest that it might help make unpalatable insects less toxic to eat.

Eleanor Drinkwater, PhD student at the University of York's Department of Biology, said: "Food dunking has been seen in at least 25 bird species, particularly in birds that have high 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 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 bird appeared to eat the insect under a nearby bush, before returning to take a second insect, 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 male before eating the insect whole.

Eleanor continued: "Although more research is needed to understand why the bird dunks its 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 through to its offspring."

The research is published in the journal Australian Field Ornithology.

Explore further: Azure-winged magpies show human-like generosity

More information: A novel observation of food dunking in the Australian Magpie Gymnorhina tibicen. Australian Field Ornithology. www.birdlife.org.au/afo/index.php/afo

Related Stories

Azure-winged magpies show human-like generosity

October 18, 2016

Magpies do not always have the best reputation, as they are generally known for their tendency to steal shiny things. Also other bird species tested for prosociality so far turned out to be either indifferent to benefitting ...

Fly larvae clean bee-eater's nest

November 22, 2016

Bird nests are home not only to the bird parents and their offspring but also to other inhabitants, such as insect larvae, which take advantage of the favourable climatic conditions and abundant supply of food in the nests. ...

Eating like a bird helps forests grow

April 5, 2010

Lions, tigers and bears top the ecological pyramid -- the diagram of the food chain that every school child knows. They eat smaller animals, feeding on energy that flows up from the base where plants convert sunlight into ...

Study: Bird population in Vermont forests drop 14.2 percent

April 15, 2017

The bird population in Vermont's forests has declined 14.2 percent over 25 years, largely due to several factors, including invasive species, climate change, and the natural cycle of maturing forests, scientists with the ...

Recommended for you

The astonishing efficiency of life

November 17, 2017

All life on earth performs computations – and all computations require energy. From single-celled amoeba to multicellular organisms like humans, one of the most basic biological computations common across life is translation: ...

Unexpected finding solves 40-year old cytoskeleton mystery

November 17, 2017

Scientists have been searching for it for decades: the enzyme that cuts the amino acid tyrosine off an important part of the cell's skeleton. Researchers of the Netherlands Cancer Institute have now identified this mystery ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.