Magpies' Bad Rap As Jewelry Thieves Doesn't Hold Up

<p><a class="checked-link" href="" style="text-decoration: none;">Duncan/Flickr</a></p>
<p><a class="checked-link" href="" style="text-decoration: none;">Duncan/Flickr</a></p>

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.

[Ed Shephard]

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."