Magpies Cleared of Theft by New Research

The magpie has long been a poignant figure in European folklore, taking  the blame for a number of superstitions and considered to be a bad omen by many. One of the magpies most famous characteristics is as a notorious thief of shiny objects, but a new study suggests the magpie may have been wrongly accused of its crimes all along.

The research, conducted by scientists at the University of Exeter, suggests that magpies may actually be scared of shiny objects and avoid them altogether, contradicting the idea that they actively seek such objects to steal for their nests.

The study involved placing two mounds of objects 30 cm away from a pile of nuts where the magpies would feed from. The mounds differed in the objects they contained, one was made up entirely of shiny objects such as foil and screws, the other comprised of objects that had been painted with matt blue paint.

Researchers observed the magpies behaviour when they went to feed at the allocated sites. It was found that in general, both mounds of object were ignored. In 64 tests, magpies only picked up a shiny object twice and immediately discarded it. Researchers also observed that under the given conditions, birds next to either mound fed less, indicating that they may have been wary about the objects around them, disturbing them from eating.

The research appears conclusive but is not yet complete. The study only included paired birds that inhabit a single territory and therefore have more predictable feeding habits. To fully understand the behaviour of the magpie, further research of unpaired birds will be required.  It will only be after this that the magpie can finally shake off its criminal past.

The thieving magpie? No evidence for attraction to shiny objects’ has been published in the journal Animal Cognition.

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Amy Moore

Amy is currently studying for a Masters in Science Communication. Follow her on twitter @_Amy_Moore91

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