Can one form a friendship with a magpie? –even when adult males are protecting their nests during the swooping season? The short answer is:“ Yes, one can” – although science has just begun to provide feasible explanations for friendship in animals, let alone for cross-species friendships between humans and wild birds.
Ravens and magpies are known to form powerful allegiances among themselves. In fact, Australia is thought to be a hotspot for cooperative behaviour in birds worldwide. They like to stick together with family and mates, in the good Australian way.
Of course, many bird species may readily come to a feeding table and become tame enough to take food from our hand, but this isn’t really “friendship”. However, there is evidence that, remarkably, free-living magpies can forge lasting relationships with people, even without depending on us for food or shelter.
When magpies are permanently ensconced on human property, they are also far less likely to swoop the people who live there. Over 80% of all successfully breeding magpies live near human houses, which means the vast majority of people, in fact, never get swooped. And since magpies can live between 25 and 30 years and are territorial, they can develop lifelong friendships with humans. This bond can extend to trusting certain people around their offspring.
A key reason why friendships with magpies are possible is that we now know that magpies are able to recognise and remember individual human faces for many years. They can learn which nearby humans do not constitute a risk. They will remember someone who was good to them; equally, they remember negative encounters.
Why become friends?
Magpies that actively form friendships with people make this investment (from their point of view) for good reason. Properties suitable for magpies are hard to come by and the competition is fierce. Most magpies will not secure a territory – let alone breed – until they are at least five years old. In fact, only about 14% of adult magpies ever succeed in breeding. And based on extensive magpie population research conducted by R. Carrick in the 1970s, even if they breed successfully every single year, they may successfully raise only seven to eleven chicks to adulthood and breeding in a lifetime. There is a lot at stake with every magpie clutch.
The difference between simply not swooping someone and a real friendship manifests in several ways. When magpies have formed an attachment they will often show their trust, for example, by formally introducing their offspring. They may allow their chicks to play near people, not fly away when a resident human is approaching, and actually approach or roost near a human.
In rare cases, they may even join in human activity. For example, magpies have helped me garden by walking in parallel to my weeding activity and displacing soil as I did. One magpie always perched on my kitchen window sill, looking in and watching my every move.
On one extraordinary occasion, an adult female magpie gingerly entered my house on foot, and hopped over to my desk where I was sitting. She watched me type on the keyboard and even looked at the screen. I had to get up to take a phone call and when I returned, the magpie had taken up a position at my keyboard, pecked the keys gently and then looked at the “results” on screen.
The bird was curious about everything I did. She also wanted to play with me and found my shoelaces particularly attractive, pulling them and then running away a little only to return for another go.
Importantly, it was the bird (not hand-raised but a free-living adult female) that had begun to take the initiative and had chosen to socially interact and such behaviour, as research has shown particularly in primates, is affiliative and part of the basis of social bonds and friendships.
If magpies can be so good with humans how can one explain their swooping at people (even if it is only for a few weeks in the year)? It’s worth bearing in mind that swooping magpies (invariably males on guard duty) do not act in aggression or anger but as nest defenders. The strategy they choose is based on risk assessment.
A risk is posed by someone who is unknown and was not present at the time of nest building, which unfortunately is often the case in public places and parks. That person is then classified as a territorial intruder and thus a potential risk to its brood. At this point the male guarding the brooding female is obliged to perform a warning swoop, literally asking a person to step away from the nest area.
If warnings are ignored, the adult male may try to conduct a near contact swoop aimed at the head (the magpie can break its own neck if it makes contact, so it is a strategy of last resort only). Magpie swooping is generally a defensive action taken when someone unknown approaches who the magpie believes intends harm. It is not an arbitrary attack.
When I was swooped for the first time in a public place I slowly walked over to the other side of the road. Importantly, I allowed the male to study my face and appearance from a safe distance so he could remember me in future, a useful strategy since we now know that magpies remember human faces. Taking a piece of mince or taking a wide berth around the magpies nest may eventually convince the nervous magpie that he does not need to deter this individual anymore because she or he poses little or no risk, and who knows, may even become a friend in future.
A sure way of escalating conflict is to fence them with an umbrella or any other device, or to run away at high speed. This human approach may well confirm for the magpie that the person concerned is dangerous and needs to be fought with every available strategy.
In dealing with magpies, as in global politics, de-escalating a perceived conflict is usually the best strategy.
This article was co-written by Adeline Lacroix, who works with Fabienne Cazalis and was recently diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. A second year master’s student in psychology, she is working on a scientific literature review about the characteristics of high-functioning autistic women.
Let’s call her Sophie. The description we’ll give could be that of any woman who is on the autistic spectrum without knowing it. Because they’re intelligent and used to compensating for communication impediments they may not be consciously aware of, these women slip through the cracks of our still-too-inefficient diagnostic procedures.
Studies reveal one woman for every nine men is diagnosed with so-called “high-functioning” autism, that is, autism without intellectual disability. If we compare this to the one woman for every four men diagnosed with the more readily identified “low-functioning” autism, we can easily imagine many autistic women are left undiagnosed.
Today, Sophie, who lives in France, has a job interview. If you could see her nervously twisting her hair, you might think she’s anxious, like anyone would be in the circumstances. You would be wrong. Sophie is actually on the verge of a panic attack. At 27, she just lost her job as a salesperson due to repeated cash-register mistakes – and it’s the eighth time in the last three years. She loved maths at university and is deeply ashamed. She hopes the person hiring will not bring up the subject – she has no justification for her professional failures and knows that she is incapable of making one up.
Learning accounting by herself at home
Sophie’s wish is granted: the interviewer asks her instead about her time at university. Relieved, she happily launches into an explanation of her masters thesis on meteorological modelling, but he cuts her off abruptly, clearly irritated. He wants to know why she is applying for a temporary job as an accounting assistant when she has no experience or training. Although her heart is racing wildly, Sophie manages to keep her composure, explaining that she taught herself accounting at home in the evenings. She describes the excellent MOOC (online course) she found on the website of the French Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers, and tells him how one of the questions she asked the teacher on the forum led to a fascinating debate on the concept of depreciation expenses.
Sophie is not good at guessing what people are thinking, but she understands from the way the man is staring at her that he believes she is lying. Overwhelmed, she feels weaker by the minute. She watches his lips move but does not understand what he’s saying. Ten minutes later she’s in the street, with no memory of how the interview ended. She is shaking and holding back tears. She curses herself, wondering how anyone could be so stupid and pathetic.
She climbs into a crowded bus, swaying under the heavy odours of perfumes worn by those pressed up around her. When the bus brakes suddenly, she loses her balance and bumps into a fellow passenger. She apologises profusely and hurriedly gets off. In her rush, she trips again and falls to the pavement. “I must get up, everyone is looking,” she thinks, but her body refuses to obey. She can no longer see properly and doesn’t even realise her own tears are blinding her. Someone calls an ambulance. Sophie wakes up in a psychiatric facility. She will be misdiagnosed with a psychological disorder and given medication that will solve none her problems.
A unique way of thinking, a taste for solitude, intense passions
Sophie’s story is typical of the chaotic lives led by women whose autism remains undiagnosed because they are on that part of the spectrum where the signs are less obvious. In spite of her impressive cognitive capacities – like the ability to teach herself a totally new field of knowledge – Sophie has no idea of her own talents, and neither do those around her, or only rarely. Trapped in a social environment highly critical of what makes her unique, such as her unusual way of thinking, taste for solitude, and the intensity of her passions, Sophie is acutely aware that these are seen as shortcomings.
If Sophie could be given the correct diagnosis of high-functioning autism, she would at last understand the way her mind works. She could meet other autistic adults and learn from their experience to help her overcome her own difficulties.
Autism is characterised by social and communicative difficulties, specific interests that people with autism are capable of speaking about for hours (like meteorological modelling, in Sophie’s case), and stereotyped behaviours. There are also differences in perception, such as hypersensitivity to smells or sounds, or, conversely, reduced sensitivity to pain. Autism is thought to affect around one in one hundred people.
70% of people with autism have either normal or superior intelligence. This form of autism is generally referred to as high-functioning autism, as per the latest version of the “bible” of psychiatric disorders, the DSM 5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). In this version, all reference to older categories has been removed, including Asperger syndrome. The term Asperger’s is still used today in some countries, however, even though all types of autism are now grouped under a single spectrum and classified according to the severity of symptoms.
Appropriate support throughout schooling
Ideally, Sophie would have been diagnosed as a child. She could have benefited from specialised support throughout her schooling, as is legally required in France and other countries. This support would have made her less vulnerable, giving her the tools to defend herself from bullying in the schoolyard and helping her learn with teaching methods adapted to her way of thinking. Upon leaving school, her diagnosis would have opened up access to labour rights, such as disabled worker status, which would have helped her find an adapted employment. Sophie’s life would have been simpler and she would be more at peace with herself.
But Sophie’s problems are twofold. Not only is she autistic, but she’s also a woman. If getting a diagnosis is already tricky for men, it’s even more difficult for women. Originally, autism was thought to only rarely affect women. This erroneous idea, which emerged from a 1943 study conducted by Léo Kanner (the first psychiatrist to describe the syndrome), has been reinforced by the long-dominant psychoanalytical approach. The criteria defining autistic symptoms were based on observations in boys.
Later, when science replaced psychoanalysis as the dominant model, studies were largely conducted on male children, thus reducing the chances of recognising autism as it’s manifested in females. This phenomenon, also present in other areas of science and medicine, has far-reaching implications today.
Similar test results for boys and girls
To diagnose autism spectrum disorder (ASD), doctors and psychologists evaluate quantitative criteria using tests and questionnaires, but also qualitative criteria, like interests, stereotyped movements, difficulties with eye contact and language and isolation. But while autistic girls show similar test results to autistic boys, the clinical manifestation of their condition differs, at least in cases where language has been acquired.
With social-imitation strategies, for example, autistic girls have fewer troubles making friends than autistic boys ; they have seemingly more ordinary interests than boys (for example horses, rather than maps of the subway); while less restless than boys, they are more vulnerable to less-visible anxiety disorders, and more adept at camouflaging their stereotyped and soothing ritual behaviors. In other words, their autism is less obtrusive, which means their symptoms are less obvious to their families, teachers and doctors.
Biology and environment explain these differences, and in this case it’s impossible to separate nature from nurture. On the nature side of the argument, some hypothesise that girls are better equipped for social cognition and more apt at caring roles. This would explain why they appear to be more interested in the animate (cats, celebrities, flowers) than the inanimate (cars, robots, rail networks).
When it comes to nurture, girls and boys are not brought up in the same way. Socially acceptable behaviours differ according to sex. Although autistic children are more resistant to this phenomenon, the pressure to conform is so strong it still ends up influencing their behaviour, as illustrated by the case of Gunilla Gerland. As a girl, this Swedish woman didn’t want to wear rings or bracelets because she hated the way metal felt on her skin. Observing that adults could not fathom that a little girl might not like these things, she resigned herself to getting gifts of jewellery, and even learned to thank the giver, before stashing the object away in a box at the earliest opportunity.
Skilled in the art of camouflage
As autistic girls grow up, the gap between how their condition and that of boys manifests widens. As adults, some autistic women can become highly skilled in the art of camouflage, which explains the use of the term “invisible disability” to describe certain types of high-functioning autism. Incidentally, this is the meaning of the title of Julie Dachez’s 2016 graphic novel, The Invisible Difference (Delcourt).
More and more women are discovering their condition later in life and sharing their experience. Since September 2016, the Francophone Association of Autistic Women (Association francophone des femmes autistes, or AFFA) has been fighting for recognition of the specific ways autism manifests in women. A learned society on autism in women is also being created in France, bringing together the general and scientific communities, with the goal of promoting dialogue between researchers and autistic women.
A specific questionnaire for girls
Historically, major figures in autism research believed there was significant prevalence in women. The Austrian Hans Asperger (for whom the syndrome is named) put forward the idea as early as 1944, as did British psychiatrist Lorna Wing, as early as 1981. But it’s only in recent years the scientific community has really started examining the evidence.
Some researchers aim to better understand the specific characteristics of autism in women. Since the beginning of this year, volunteers are invited to participate in a study on “autism in women” conducted by Laurent Mottron, a professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Montreal (Canada), and Pauline Duret, a doctoral student in neuroscience, in collaboration with myself and Adeline Lacroix, working at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris (France). Adeline Lacroix is a master’s student in psychology and has herself been diagnosed with autism.
Other studies are attempting to adapt diagnostic tools for use with female subjects. A team made up of Australian scientists Sarah Ormond, Charlotte Brownlow, Michelle Garnett, and Tony Attwood, and Polish scientist Agnieszka Rynkiewicz, is currently perfecting a specific questionnaire for young girls, the Q-ASC (“Questionnaire for autism spectrum conditions”). They presented their work in May 2017 at a conference in San Francisco.
While there has been an initial trove of interesting results, current research into the specific characteristics of autism in women is raising more questions than it answers. However, the confusion could be considered a necessary step toward the acquisition of knowledge, provided the women affected can contribute to the research and share their point of view on the direction the work should take.
Ordinary citizens can also work towards ensuring autistic girls have the same rights as their male counterparts. By gaining a better understanding of the different forms of autism, everyone can contribute to a world in which children and adults with autism can find their place, and help fight exclusion by creating an inclusive society.
The recent mass shooting in Las Vegas that left dozens of people dead and hundreds injured raises two important questions: How do dangerous people get their guns? And what should the police and courts be doing to make those transactions more difficult?
The fact is that, even leaving aside the assault in Las Vegas and terrorist attacks like the one in San Bernardino, California, in 2015, gun violence is becoming almost routine in many American neighborhoods. The U.S. homicide rate increased more than 20 percent from 2014 to 2016, while last year’s 3.4 percent rise in the violent crime rate was the largest single-year gain in 25 years.
The guns carried and misused by youths, gang members and active criminals are more likely than not obtained by transactions that violate federal or state law. And, as I’ve learned from my decades of researching the topic, it is rare for the people who provide these guns to the eventual shooters to face any legal consequences.
How can this illicit market be policed more effectively?
Undocumented and unregulated transactions
The vast majority of gun owners say they obtained their weapons in transactions that are documented and for the most part legal.
When asked where and how they acquired their most recent firearm, about 64 percent of a cross-section of American gun owners reported buying it from a gun store, where the clerk would have conducted a background check and documented the transfer in a permanent record required by federal law. Another 14 percent were transferred in some other way but still involved a background check. The remaining 22 percent said they got their guns without a background check.
The same is not true for criminals, however, most of whom obtain their guns illegally.
A transaction can be illegal for several reasons, but of particular interest are transactions that involve disqualified individuals – those banned from purchase or possession due to criminal record, age, adjudicated mental illness, illegal alien status or some other reason. Convicted felons, teenagers and other people who are legally barred from possession would ordinarily be blocked from purchasing a gun from a gun store because they would fail the background check or lack the permit or license required by some states.
Anyone providing the gun in such transactions would be culpable if he or she had reason to know that the buyer was disqualified, was acting as a straw purchaser or if had violated state regulations pertaining to such private transactions.
The importance of the informal (undocumented) market in supplying criminals is suggested by the results of inmate surveys and data gleaned from guns confiscated by the police. A national survey of inmates of state prisons found that just 10 percent of youthful (age 18-40) male respondents who admitted to having a gun at the time of their arrest had obtained it from a gun store. The other 90 percent obtained them through a variety of off-the-book means: for example, as gifts or sharing arrangements with fellow gang members.
Similarly, an ongoing study of how Chicago gang members get their guns has found that only a trivial percentage obtained them by direct purchase from a store. To the extent that gun dealers are implicated in supplying dangerous people, it is more so by accommodating straw purchasers and traffickers than in selling directly to customers they know to be disqualified.
The supply chain of guns to crime
While criminals typically do not buy their guns at a store, all but a tiny fraction of those in circulation in the United States are first sold at retail by a gun dealer – including the guns that eventually end up in the hands of criminals.
That first retail sale was most likely legal, in that the clerk followed federal and state requirements for documentation, a background check and record-keeping. While there are scofflaw dealers who sometimes make under-the-counter deals, that is by no means the norm.
If a gun ends up in criminal use, it is usually after several more transactions. The average age of guns taken from Chicago gangs is over 11 years.
The gun at that point has been diverted from legal commerce. In this respect, the supply chain for guns is similar to that for other products that have a large legal market but are subject to diversion.
In the case of guns, diversion from licit possession and exchange can occur in a variety of ways: theft, purchase at a gun show by an interstate trafficker, private sales where no questions are asked, straw purchases by girlfriends and so forth.
What appears to be true is that there are few big operators in this domain. The typical trafficker or underground broker is not making a living that way but rather just making a few dollars on the side. The supply chain for guns used in crime bears little relationship to the supply chain for heroin or cocaine and is much more akin to that for cigarettes and beer that are diverted to underage teenagers.
There have been few attempts to estimate the scope or scale of the underground market, in part because it is not at all clear what types of transactions should be included. But for the sake of having some order-of-magnitude estimate, suppose we just focus on the number of transactions each year that supply the guns actually used in robbery or assault.
There are about 500,000 violent crimes committed with a gun each year. If the average number of times that an offender commits a robbery or assault with a particular gun is twice, then (assuming patterns of criminal gun use remain constant) the total number of transactions of concern is 250,000 per year.
Actually, no one knows the average number of times a specific gun is used by an offender who uses it at least once. If it is more than twice, then there are even fewer relevant transactions.
That compares with total sales volume by licensed dealers, which is upwards of 20 million per year.
All in the family
So how do gang members, violent criminals, underage youths and other dangerous people get their guns?
A consistent answer emerges from the inmate surveys and from ethnographic studies. Whether guns that end up being used in crime are purchased, swapped, borrowed, shared or stolen, the most likely source is someone known to the offender, an acquaintance or family member.
For example, Syed Rizwan Farook – one of the shooters in San Bernardino – relied on a friend to get several of the rifles and pistols he used because Farook doubted that he could pass a background check. That a friend and neighbor was the source is quite typical, despite the unique circumstances otherwise.
Also important are “street” sources, such as gang members and drug dealers, which may also entail a prior relationship. Thus, social networks play an important role in facilitating transactions, and an individual (such as a gang member) who tends to hang out with people who have guns will find it relatively easy to obtain one.
Effective policing of the underground gun market could help to separate guns from everyday violent crime. Currently it is rare for those who provide guns to offenders to face any legal consequences, and changing that situation will require additional resources to penetrate the social networks of gun offenders.
Needless to say, that effort is not cheap or easy and requires that both the police and the courts have the necessary authority and give this sort of gun enforcement high priority.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on Jan. 15, 2016.
Editor’s note: This is a roundup of gun control articles published by scholars from the U.S. and two other countries where deadly mass shootings are far less common.
An underresearched epidemic
Guns are a leading cause of death of Americans of all ages, including children. Yet “while gun violence is a public health problem, it is not studied the same way other public health problems are,” explains Sandro Galea, dean of Boston University’s School of Public Health.
That’s no accident. Congress has prohibited firearm-related research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health since 1996. Galea says:
“Unfortunately, a shortage of data creates space for speculation, conjecture and ill-informed argument that threatens reasoned public discussion and progressive action on the issue.”
The Australian model
The contrast with Australia is especially stark. Just as Congress was barring any research that might strengthen the case for tighter gun regulations, that country established very strict firearm laws in response to the Port Arthur massacre, which killed 35 people in 1996.
To clamp down on guns, the federal government worked with Australia’s states to ban semiautomatic rifles and pump action shotguns, establish a uniform gun registry and buy the now-banned guns from people who had purchased them before owning them became illegal. The country also stopped recognizing self-defense as an acceptable reason for gun ownership and outlawed mail-order gun sales.
These measures worked. Simon Chapman, a public health expert at the University of Sydney, writes:
“When it comes to firearms, Australia is far a safer place today than it was in the 1990s and in previous decades.”
There have been no mass murders since the Port Arthur massacre and the subsequent clampdown on guns, Chapman observes. In contrast, there were 13 of those tragic incidents over the previous 18 years – in which a total of 104 victims died. Other gun deaths have also declined.
Concerns about complacency
After so many years with no mass killings, some Australian scholars fear that their country may be moving in the wrong direction.
Twenty years after doing more than any other nation to strengthen firearm regulation, “many people think we no longer have to worry about gun violence,” say Rebecca Peters of the University of Sydney and Chris Cunneen at the University of New South Wales. They write:
“Such complacency jeopardizes public safety. The pro-gun lobby has succeeded in watering down the laws in several states. Weakening the rules on pistols so that unlicensed shooters can walk into a club and shoot without any waiting period for background checks has resulted in at least one homicide in New South Wales.”
In the UK
Like Australia, the U.K. tightened its gun regulations following its own 1996 tragedy – when a man killed 16 children and their teacher at Dunblane Primary School, near Stirling, Scotland.
Subsequently, the U.K. banned some handguns and bought back many banned weapons. There, however, progress has been less impressive, notes Helen Williamson, a researcher at the University of Brighton. On the one hand, the number of firearms offenses has declined from a high of 24,094 in 2004 to 7,866 in 2015. On the other, criminals are growing more “resourceful in identifying alternative sources of firearms,” she says, adding:
“Although the availability of high-quality firearms may have fallen, the demand for weapons remains. This demand has driven criminals to be resourceful in identifying alternative sources of firearms. There are growing concerns about how they could acquire instructions online on how to build a homemade gun, or even 3D-print a functioning pistol.”