Are you a robin or a magpie?

I was reading one of Johnnie Moore’s blog posts recently, about positive deviance, where looking at outliers helps people to solve serious real world problems. Johnnie refers to an abstract from The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems, ( published by Harvard Business Press. © 2010 Richard Pascale, Jerry Sternin and Monique Sternin), which in turn refers to a Nasrudin parable about how easy it is to miss the answers that are right before our eyes.

The part that particularly interested me was the discussion about robins and magpies, reproduced here:

My eye was caught by the analysis of the relative capacity of magpies and robin to break open milk bottle tops and steal the cream. It seems that when foil tops were introduced, a few birds of both species figured out the solution. With robins, it remained just the clever few. The explanation?

“The contrast between robins and magpies is instructive. Robins are highly territorial, live comparatively isolated lives and vocalize primarily to demark their territory.”

But millions of magpies caught on.

“The magpie, by way of contrast, is highly social and leverages its intelligence accordingly. Magpies, with a brain-to-overall-body-weight ratio only slightly lower than that of humans, exhibit unusual levels of social awareness… Magpies are gregarious in winter, gather to roost at night and collect in rooks as large as 65,000 birds during mating season. They team up in bands to tease cats and dive-bomb predators. Demonstrating empathy and social altruism, cooperative breeding occurs from time to time, with additional adults helping to raise nestlings. Young magpies even play elaborate social games, including king of the mountain, passing sticks and sliding down smooth surfaces. They can work collectively to lift garbage bin lids as members take turns feeding. It was observed that one flock figured out how to crack nuts by placing them in crosswalks, letting passing cars break the husks, and waiting for the red light before safely retrieving the contents.”

I appreciate I’m deviating slightly from the ‘Positive Deviance theme’, but my proximity to the nurture and development of Communities of Practice created a connection in my mind between how robins and magpies behave and how community members behave.  The fact that CoPs exist at all is because most of the people attracted to them exhibit  ‘magpie-like’ behaviour, in terms of being social and wanting to share knowledge.  I would guess that the most successful problem-solving CoPs are made of such ‘magpie-people’.

On the other hand – the robin behaviour is more likely to be exhibited by those who distrust and avoid social networking. They exist by protecting and (if possible) extending their territory, where they exert some power and influence. Some are clever enough to tap into the knowledge of others (but without sharing anything of their own knowledge).  They will survive. The others remain distant and aloof, clutching onto the power they have inherited or accumulated, but without ever evolving as their environment changes.  Some managers and many dictators come to mind at present.  Both – it would appear – have a limited future!



  1. In Britain, the birds most associated with breaking the foil tops of milk bottles to steal the cream as far as I know have been neither magpies nor robins, but tits (blue tits, great tits) like the critter which adorns the tops of your pages. I wonder how true the observation is? Also, is the source an American one, in which case the magpie in question is Pica hudsonia rather than Pica pica, and the American robin is Turdus migratorius, a very different bird from Erithacus rubecula.

    But I’m nit-picking (or pecking…)

    More to the point, territoriality is an extremely sucessful behaviour for robins; they are in no danger of extinction! 🙂 There’s more than one way to carve out an ecological niche…

    February 27, 2011
    • Steve Dale said:

      Thanks for the comments Conrad. Actually you are right about the tits, and should you care to observe their behaviour, the long-tailed tit behaves quite differently to the blue, coal or great varieties. They congregate together and flock whilst feeding. We see maybe 10-20 around our bird feeder then they all leave together. Another example of a socially-minded bird – maybe they were the first to the crack the problem of the foil bottle tops 🙂

      February 27, 2011
  2. And it is fittingly ironic then that while the robin has been selected as a “state” bird by at least one U.S. state….magpies…none that I know of.

    May 1, 2011

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