The Whole "Magpies Like Shiny Objects" Thing Is Vicious Bird Slander

At least according to new research from Exeter University. According to a study conducted by the university's Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour (CRAB), not only do they not steal shiny objects, they're afraid of them.

Top image: Eric Isselee/Shutterstock

When an Internet search revealed only two incidents of Magpie thievery, CRAB scientists set out to test the age-old myth. And lead author Dr. Toni Shepherd concluded that humans notice the few instances of shiny object taking because they expect to see it:

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.

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 that the folklore surrounding them is a result of cultural generalisation and anecdotes rather than evidence.

Researchers placed a two piles of objects equidistant from a pile of food: one pile of shiny things (metal screws, small foil rings, and a small rectangular piece of aluminium foil) and one pile of matte-painted screws and rings. The study was done on captive birds at a rescue and at locations around the university where wild magpies frequented. The captive birds completely avoided both piles and only two of sixty-four tests on the wild birds yielded results. Both times, a magpie picked up and immediately got rid of a silver ring.

And not only did the birds avoid the shiny objects, they also seemed worried by their presence. In comparison to the control tests with just the food, the birds often exhibited "wary behaviour and feeding less in the presence of the items."

Dr. Shepherd told BBC News that this made more sense than the myth does:

Some birds do use eye-catching objects in the nest after mating occurs, like black kites, to warn off potential predators. But we had already looked inside a dozen magpie nests and not seen any shiny objects. So, I was not expecting magpies to use objects for this purpose.

Co-author Dr. Natalie Hempel de Ibarra agreed that this was more consistent with the intelligence of the birds than the idea that they steal shiny objects:

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.

So, stop thinking it's magpies stealing your jewelry. You're basically accusing them of being stupid.

[BBC, University of Exeter]