Date: 15 Aug 2014

‘The thieving magpie’? No evidence for attraction to shiny objects

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Abstract

It is widely accepted in European culture that magpies (Pica pica) are unconditionally attracted to shiny objects and routinely steal small trinkets such as jewellery, almost as a compulsion. Despite the long history of this folklore, published accounts of magpies collecting shiny objects are rare and empirical evidence for the behaviour is lacking. The latter is surprising considering that an attraction to bright objects is well documented in some bird species. The present study aims to clarify whether magpies show greater attraction to shiny objects than non-shiny objects when presented at the same time. We did not find evidence of an unconditional attraction to shiny objects in either captive or free-living birds. Instead, all objects elicited responses indicating neophobia in free-living birds. 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. The folklore may therefore result from observation bias and cultural inflation of orally transmitted episodic events.