Monday 29 December 2014

Magpies found to fear shiny objects

Published 16/08/2014 | 00:45

Magpies do not deserve their reputation as trinket thieves, scientists have found (University of Exeter/PA)
Magpies do not deserve their reputation as trinket thieves, scientists have found (University of Exeter/PA)

A magpie is unlikely to take a shine to your jewellery and might even be frightened by it, research has shown.

In a series of experiments, scientists debunked the common myth that magpies are inveterate trinket thieves.

They found that far from being attracted to shiny objects, the black and white birds tended to avoid them.

The tests were carried out at the University of Exeter both on wild magpies and a group of the birds housed at a rescue centre.

Under carefully controlled conditions, they were exposed to both shiny and non-shiny items and their reactions recorded.

Lead researcher Dr Toni Shephard, from the university's Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour, said: "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.

"We suggest that humans notice when magpies occasionally pick up shiny objects because they believe the birds find them attractive, while it goes unnoticed when magpies interact with less eye-catching items. It seems likely, therefore, that the folklore surrounding them is a result of cultural generalisation and anecdotes rather than evidence."

The test objects used in the study were shiny metal screws, small foil rings and a small rectangular piece of aluminium foil.

Half the screws and rings were painted matt blue while the rest retained their original silvery shine.

In the experiments shiny and non-shiny objects were placed on the ground 30 centimetres from a pile of food in the form of nuts.

Wild magpies only made contact with a shiny object twice in 64 tests, the researchers reported in the journal Animal Cognition. On both occasions, a silver ring was picked up and immediately discarded.

Both the shiny and blue objects were either ignored or avoided. Often, the magpies exhibited wary behaviour by feeding less when the items were nearby.

During the study with captive birds, no contact was made with any of the objects.

Co-author Dr Natalie Hempel de Ibarra, also from the University of Exeter, said: "Surprisingly little research has investigated the cognitive mechanisms of magpie behaviour. 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."

The magpie's tarnished reputation runs through folklore, literature and music.

Rossini's opera The Thieving Magpie, first performed in 1817, tells the story of a servant girl wrongly accused of silver thefts that were committed by a magpie.

One episode of the Tintin comic series, The Castafiore Emerald, has a similar plot with a magpie making off with a prized emerald.

Magpies have traditionally been regarded as bearers of bad omens and associated with the devil.

In Scotland, a magpie near the window of a house is said to be a harbinger of death.

The sight of a magpie on its own, rather than in a pair, is said to be especially inauspicious.

To ward off bad luck it is traditional to salute the bird and say: "Good morning Mr Magpie, how is your lady wife today?"

Other ways to avoid a lone magpie bringing misfortune include doffing your hat, spitting three times over your shoulder, and even flapping your arms like wings or pretending to caw.

The well-known rhyme "one for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy..." was chosen as the theme music for the popular 1970s children's TV programme Magpie.

Press Association

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