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."
London, Aug 17 - The myth of the thieving magpie, which pervades European folklore, may not be true after all. A British study says magpies do not steal trinkets and are scared of shiny objects.
It is widely believed that magpies have a compulsive urge to steal sparkly things for their nests.
Exeter University scientists show the birds are actually nervous of such objects, presumably since they are novel and may prove dangerous, BBC reported.
During the study, a pile of shiny items (metal screws, small foil rings, and a small rectangular piece of aluminium foil), and a pile of the same objects covered with matt blue paint were involved.
Researchers placed mounds of edible nuts just 30cm from each of the collected objects.
In 64 tests during feeding, it was noticed that magpies picked up a shiny object only twice - and discarded it immediately. Also, the birds essentially ignored or avoided both shiny and blue objects, and often fed less when they were present.
Lead author Toni Shephard said: 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.