‘Thieving’ Magpies a myth

Magpies aren't the thieves of the bird kingdom, according to a new study. Photo by Luis Garcia (commons.wikimedia.org).
Magpies aren't the thieves of the bird kingdom, according to a new study. Photo by Luis Garcia (commons.wikimedia.org).

Contrary to popular opinion, Magpies aren’t attracted to shiny objects and don’t routinely steal small trinkets, according to a new study.

In European culture, it is widely thought that Magpies are the thieves of the bird kingdom, attracted to sparkly things and prone to pinching them for their nests.

But researchers at the Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour (CRAB) at the University of Exeter are challenging this perception, with a series of experiments that show that the species is actually frightened of new and unfamiliar objects.

Scientists studied a group of Magpies which had come from a rescue centre, and wild birds in the grounds of the university. Both groups were exposed to shiny and non-shiny items, and their reactions recorded.

The wild Magpies only made contact with a shiny object twice in 64 tests. Both times a silver ring was picked up and immediately discarded. The birds either ignored or avoided both shiny and blue objects, often exhibiting wary behaviour and feeding less in the presence of such items.

During the study with captive birds, none of them made contact with any object, be it shiny or blue.

Dr Toni Shephard, lead author of the study, said: “We did not find evidence of an unconditional attraction to shiny objects in Magpies. Instead, all objects prompted responses indicating neophobia – fear of new things – in the birds.”

Dr Natalie Hempel de Ibarra, co-author of the article, added: “Surprisingly little research has investigated the cognitive mechanisms of Magpie behaviour. Similar to other large-brained members of the crow family with complex social systems, Magpies are capable of sophisticated mental feats, such as mirror self-recognition, retrieval of hidden objects and remembering where and when they have hoarded what food item.

“Here we demonstrate once more that they are smart – instead of being compulsively drawn towards shiny objects, Magpies decide to keep a safe distance when these objects are novel and unexpected.”

Shephard, T V, Lea, S E G, and Hempel de Ibarra, N. ‘The thieving magpie’? No evidence for attraction to shiny objects. Animal Cognition. DOI: 10.1007/s10071-014-0794-4.

Written by: Birdwatch news team