Do Magpies Like Stealing Shiny Things?

An experiment put the bird's thieving reputation to the test.

This audio story is brought to you by BirdNote, a partner of The National Audubon Society. BirdNote episodes air daily on public radio stations nationwide.

This is BirdNote.

Rossini’s 1815 opera,The Thieving Magpie tells of a household maid who nearly goes to the gallows for stealing silver from her employers. At the last instant, it’s revealed that the silver thief was actually a magpie that had been hiding items in the church tower.

The opera was so popular in its day that it’s believed to have helped cement the devious reputation of the magpie. Today, it “seems” common knowledge that the Eurasian Magpie is, by nature, drawn to snatch up and fly off with shiny things.

But scientists at Exeter University put the perception to the test. They placed food alongside shiny and painted objects and then waited for the magpies to come investigate. The result? The opposite of what everybody expected: The magpies were much more cautious around novel, flashy objects—and less likely to approach the food.

Magpies are very curious, just like their relatives, the jays and crows. They may sometimes pick up shiny things, but they don’t show any preference for shiny over dull. A magpie’s more likely to grab your sandwich than your silver.

For BirdNote, I’m Michael Stein



Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Recorded by Jay McGowan.

BirdNote’s theme music composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.

Producer: John Kessler

Managing Producer: Jason Saul

Editor: Ashley Ahearn

Associate Producer: Ellen Blackstone

Assistant Producer: Mark Bramhill.

Narrator: Michael Stein

Written by Bob Sundstrom

© 2019 Tune In to   April 2019