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Falsely Accused: The “Thieving” Magpie Shown To Have Little Interest In Shiny Objects

August 18, 2014
Image Caption: Magpies are actually frightened of new objects instead of being attracted to them, according to researchers. Credit: Thinkstock.com

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online

Despite its reputation in literature and folklore, researchers from the University of Exeter Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour (CRAB) have found no evidence that magpies are attracted to shiny objects.

In fact, not only do the long-tailed members of the crow family not compulsively swipe jewelry and other small trinkets, but they are actually frightened of new objects instead of being attracted to them, according to research appearing in the journal Animal Cognition.

“Magpies have been declared innocent after more than 200 years of being branded nature’s thieves,” said Miranda Prynne of The Telegraph, adding that the new findings are contrary to “what centuries of folklore has taught us.” The findings held true for magpies tested both in captivity and in the wild, the researchers discovered.

Lead author Dr. Toni Shephard and her colleagues conducted a series of experiments using both magpies (Pica pica) obtained from a rescue center and wild birds found on the grounds of the university. They were exposed to both shiny items such as tin foil and non-shiny items, and the CRAB researchers recorded their reactions.

According to BBC News environmental analyst Roger Harrabin, some of the shiny items (which also included things like metal screws and small foil rings) were placed in a pile as-is, and some of them were covered in matte blue paint. A mound of edible nuts was also placed 30cm away.

Dr. Shephard and her colleagues conducted 64 tests, and found that magpies only picked up shiny objects on two occasions. Furthermore, the object was immediately discarded. The birds essentially ignored and avoided both the shiny objects and the blue ones, Harrabin reported, and were less likely to feed when those items were present.

“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,” explained Dr. Shephard.

“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,” she added in a statement. “It seems likely, therefore, that the folklore surrounding them is a result of cultural generalization and anecdotes rather than evidence.”

Furthermore, none of the captive birds tested at the animal sanctuary picked up any of the objects, shiny or otherwise. Given that the magpie showed no desire to steal shiny objects, it begs the question: how did it get the reputation of being nature’s thief (which Rachel Feltman of The Washington Post calls “such a long-held cliche that you probably hold it as fact”)?

“The mythology surrounding the birds has for centuries told how they line their nests with shiny and sparkling objects, which has led to many stories about magpies stealing priceless jewelry,” Prynne said. “The researchers believe the legend may have arisen after a magpie was spotted picking up a shiny object in the past.”

“Surprisingly little research has investigated the cognitive mechanisms of magpie behavior,” said co-author Dr Natalie Hempel de Ibarra. “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,” she added.

However, as BBC News explains, the research is not yet conclusive. Since the test required the use of fixed feeding stations, it means that the scientists were only able to observe “married” magpies that inhabit a specific location. Magpies that do not have a steady partner are far less predictable in their feeding habits, meaning that it is theoretically possible that they are the ones responsible for swiping those shiny objects.

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Source: redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online



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