For many years, the common magpie has been steeped in superstition and considered as an elite thief in the birding world. Yet new research suggests that, despite the old wives’ tale, magpies aren’t so fond of shiny objects after all.
Psychologists at the University of Exeter carried out a series of experiments in which magpies were introduced to metal screws, foil rings and pieces of aluminium foil that were either shiny or painted blue. Piles of nuts were also placed nearby to offer a more edible reward.
Interestingly, there was no evidence to suggest that the magpies had a burning desire for the shiny objects. Rather, the glossy black-and-white birds appeared wary when presented with these unfamiliar items, avoiding or ignoring them, while also tending to eat less food.
So how did the tales of thieving magpies come about? “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,” says Dr Toni Shephard. “It seems likely, therefore, that the folklore surrounding them is a result of cultural generalisation and anecdotes rather than evidence.”
So maybe it’s time to cut these long-accused birds a bit of slack.