Magpie behaviour

To: 'Graeme Clifton' <>, "" <>
Subject: Magpie behaviour
From: Philip Veerman <>
Date: Mon, 19 Aug 2019 23:28:49 +0000

Hi Graeme,


Thanks for your interest in my contribution. I think your suggestion of “remedial action” is strange. Yes of course she has a right to reply and that would be good. Especially if she can see this comment. I am simply supporting careful consideration of evidence about the behaviour of the birds. I think her 2nd hand observation on the magpies could easily have been given a better context than the somewhat directionless one she offered. If you are going to publish a serious book on bird behaviour, single observations should be better supported or left out. I don’t see the behaviour as particularly unusual. To put a single alleged observation in a book in such an open ended way I think is premature when it suggests something strange and adds a sort of mystery that may not exist. It could easily be taken out of context. Where does the idea of birds “holding court” lead to? When there is a simple explanation for the observed behaviour that may (or not) be correct. It sort of sets up a legend of bird behaviour. There are published reviews of her books and I suspect she had already read similar comments to my simple comments here. When she came to COG I found her talk quite interesting but in many ways adventurous in her interpretation of evidence and I perceived from reactions that I was not the only one. I may be wrong of course. It is of course fine with being adventurous in the way you use evidence. It is one way to advance. But also to have some scrutiny. I don’t recall whether I actually met her beyond that.


Yes anecdotal observations sure are useful as a start point but really mostly so if they go somewhere else. The recent disclosure of the 3 species of raptors that may be capable of spreading fire is a great example of something that has happened that way. My 1974 observation of the Regent Honeyeater mimicry was just that for years, until in the late 1980s I started to notice there were lots of other similar observations that no one else had combined, seen the similarity, let alone sought to explain. So I researched it careful over several years, collected evidence and published my findings. These were well supported by research into the phenomenon and comparisons with many other species and prior analyses. These have since been widely supported and somewhat extended. There are many individual anecdotal stories going back centuries as to how birds react to a total solar eclipse but my research and publication on that is still the world’s biggest summary of this phenomenon. The little magpie story below is believable and can be a good example of a behaviour even taken to a bit of an extreme, but when you think about what it actually says, I reckon it just that, an extreme example of a normal behaviour that most of us see often. As such I think it easy to explain (though not easy to be sure this is correct)…….. We don’t actually get into a bird’s head.




From: Graeme Clifton [
Sent: Monday, 19 August, 2019 8:03 PM
Subject: Fwd: [canberrabirds] Magpie behaviour


I refer to P Veerman email below.


I have never met Gisela Kaplan and do not know her.  I am aware that she is an Emeritus Professor at UNE and has published widely.


Given P Veerman’s comments, I think that, in the interests of fairness, the moderator of this chatline should contact Gisela Kaplan and advise her of the content of P Veerman’s email.  She should be offered the right of reply on this chatline.  Any other remedial options will be a matter for her to consider.


Graeme Clifton

Sent from my iPad

Begin forwarded message:

From: "Philip Veerman" <>
Date: 18 August 2019 at 4:58:49 pm AEST
To: "'Geoffrey Dabb'" <>, <m("","canberrabirds");">>
Subject: RE: [canberrabirds] Magpie behaviour

I have read that passage before, though I can’t recall when. I suggest that her writing is liberally sprinkled with the weird overstatement. She gave a talk to COG a few years ago and this supported my impression of her analysis. I would not recommend or bother to buy her books. Maybe a few months ago there was a mention of her on this line as a “legendary ornithologist”……. Which I had a public giggle at. However when I consider the story, I suspect it is not all that noteworthy. Magpies have regular territorial skirmishes. These are usually in flight but sometimes it gets forced to the ground and this sort of thing happens. Then they may have a situation of one bird being attacked or beaten up by several magpies. I think it is most typical when parents are telling their young to leave and take care of themselves. The only thing unusual in this story is the number of birds involved and that they formed part of a circle. As such it is just a quantitative difference and not such a big deal.




From: Geoffrey Dabb
Sent: Sunday, 18 August, 2019 11:26 AM
Subject: [canberrabirds] Magpie behaviour


I am looking for some background to the below passage in the introduction to Gisela Kaplan’s book on Magpies, 1st ed.  It also appears in modified form in the 2nd ed, Chapter 9.   It is given as an example of an ‘apparent “rational” deliberate act in an animal’.  The extract is snipped from Google books online.  I am wondering if the original report was from a chatline subscriber.


A screenshot of a cell phone

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