Magpies deserve our apology. Apparently humans have been unnecessarily maligning the birds for centuries. They actually aren’t attracted to shiny things, and they’re probably not thieves, Toni Shephard and colleagues at the University of Exeter report in the August Animal Cognition.
The birds have a reputation for stealing jewelry and other bright objects. Look in the American Heritage Dictionary and you’ll find a definition of magpie that isn’t for the bird but for “one who compulsively collects or hoards small objects.” And Rossini even based an opera on the birds’ reputation for thievery: In La gazza ladra, or “The Thieving Magpie,” a magpie takes several silver items and a maidservant gets executed for the crime.
But no one had ever tested whether magpies really do prefer shiny things. So Shephard and colleagues began with eight birds housed at U.K. wildlife rescue centers. They presented the magpies with two piles of screws — one blue and one silver. None of the birds touched any of the screws.
Then the researchers set up a similar experiment at eight sites near their university where pairs of magpies were residing. They presented the birds with food and piles of objects — screws and rings in blue and silver and rectangular pieces of aluminum foil. Those objects appeared to deter the birds from the food; they took longer to start feeding when the objects of whatever color were present. Two birds touched shiny rings, but this occurred after they had eaten all the food and they immediately dropped the objects. The researchers suggest that the birds were just trying to determine whether the rings were more food.
“This study exonerates Rossini’s magpies, finding no evidence to suggest the species is unconditionally attracted to shiny objects,” Shephard and colleagues conclude. Instead, the birds appear ambivalent to or even afraid of new things, no matter what they look like.
So how did the birds get their bad rap? It’s probably observational bias, the researchers say. “We notice when magpies collect shiny objects because we ‘know’ they are attracted to shiny objects but we do not notice when they interact with less eye-catching items,” they write. Over time, humans conflated those observations into a tale that’s completely not true.