Magpies' Bad Rap As Jewelry Thieves Doesn't Hold Up
Magpies get a bad rap as thieves of shiny objects. According to European folklore and at least one opera, "La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie)," magpies compulsively snatch up jewelry - as if each bird were some sort of tiny, feathered Gollum. And a scattering of anecdotes (like the time a bird squirreled away a woman's engagement ring in the bottom of a nest for three years) don't do much to help the magpie image, either. But researchers at the University of Exeter report that this sticky-fingered reputation is, essentially, unfounded.
"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," says Toni Shephard, an expert in animal behavior and author of the new study, in a press release.
Shephard and her colleagues placed shiny objects - little foil rings, metal screws and a bit of aluminum foil - next to tasty nuts, in eight piles around the University of Exeter campus. The researchers painted half of the would-be treasures matte blue and left the other half to shine.
The birds were much more likely to be suspicious of the loot piles, in fact, rather than tempted by the sight of the hoard. The increased wariness is a testament to the birds' intelligence, says study co-author Natalie Hempel de Ibarra (a pile of metal screws next to a pile of nuts, to be fair, does come off as a little unusual).
"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," Ibarra says. "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."