Magpies have long been maligned as egg-snatchers, territorial bullies, and harbingers of death. But most commonly, these canny corvids are accused in European folklore of compulsively stealing shiny objects like diamond rings to line their nests. Now new research debunks this idea, to the relief of ornithologists who are weary of the popular myth.
To test whether the birds have any real attraction to sparkly things, academics from the Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom presented both wild and captive magpies with piles of nuts. The nuts were next to two heaps of temptation: one of matte, blue-painted objects, and the other of shiny items including squares of foil, metal screws, and foil rings.
“The study was designed to investigate their reactions to shiny objects, specifically, as the folklore in the [United Kingdom] is that they are unconditionally attracted,” says Toni Shephard, an urban ecologist at the University of Exeter, and lead author on the study. The researchers included the pile of blue objects to test whether this seeming attraction to gleaming things might simply equate to a love of anything new.
But they found the opposite was true. “The wild birds were wary of all the objects, regardless of shape, or color, or shininess,” Shephard says. The researchers particularly noticed that the magpies ate more warily in the vicinity of the foreign objects. The researchers put this down to ‘neophobia’: the fear of new things. The captive birds were less concerned, but were still completely indifferent to the pile of shiny treasures.
“The study’s real focus seems to be on how magpies respond to novel objects,” says Tim Birkhead, a professor of zoology at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. Birkhead was not involved in the study, and has authored a book about magpies. Far from being compulsive snatchers of new and shiny things, the study suggests that there are “more complex cognitive processes underlying their behavior, not simply instinct,” Shephard explains.
This is in tune with what researchers do know about magpies. The birds have “fantastic cognition, like all members of the crow family; they’re inquisitive, and very capable of learning,” Birkhead says. “That probably fuels this myth because corvids are renowned for being clever.”
But what triggered the idea? It’s hard to trace it back to its origins, but it was most likely perpetuated in popular culture by events like Giaochino Rossini’s opera in the 1800s, titled ‘The Thieving Magpie’, which sees a young woman mistakenly imprisoned for a magpie’s silver thievery.
In the present day, this myth persists anecdotally, probably because magpies make popular pets. “They’re incredibly inquisitive and they play with everything,” Birkhead says. “If your magpie picks up a pen you don’t bat an eyelid. But if it picks up your wedding ring, you take note.”
Anecdotes abound, but, says Birkhead, “there’s no evidence for it.”
So the next time you’re labeled a ‘magpie’ for your love of bling, just reply that you’re happy to be compared to such a clever bird.