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.