Magpies don’t actually like stealing shiny things


Stop blaming magpies for stealing your stuff. (Ed Shephard)

The thieving magpie is such a long-held cliche that you probably hold it as fact. I for one always assumed that the birds (which have the adorable scientific name Pica pica, oh my goodness) were avid little thieves, compulsively stealing shiny objects to place in their nests.

Not so, according to a study published Friday in Animal Cognition. After closely monitoring the actions of both wild and rescued magpies in the presence of foreign objects, animal behavior researchers at  the University of Exeter are calling foul on society's besmirching of the species' character.

The birds were exposed both to shiny objects — metal screws, small foil rings and a small piece of aluminum foil — and ones that had been painted a matte shade of blue. There were also some tasty nuts in the vicinity.

Instead of flying off with glittering loot, the magpies actually showed a healthy fear of all the foreign objects, shiny or otherwise. During 64 tests, magpies only made contact with shiny objects twice (both times, a bird picked up a ring and then immediately discarded it). The birds avoided the blue and shiny objects both, and were less enthusiastic about taking nuts when the unfamiliar objects were too close by.

"Surprisingly little research has investigated the cognitive mechanisms of magpie behavior," Natalie Hempel de Ibaraa, co-author of the study and a professor of psychology at University of Exeter, said in a statement. "Similarly 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."

Rachel Feltman runs The Post's Speaking of Science blog.
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Rachel Feltman · August 15