Skip to main content

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

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2

References

  1. BBC (2003) Magpies. Retrieved 26th March 2014, from http://news.bbc.co.uk/dna/place-lancashire/plain/A1094230

  2. Bensom-Amram S, Weldele ML, Holekamp KE (2013) A comparison of innovative problem-solving abilities between wild and captive spotted hyaenas, Crocuta crocuta. Anim Behav 85:349–356

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Birkhead TR (1991) The magpies: the ecology and behaviour of black-billed and yellow-billed magpies, 1st edn. T & AD Poyser, London

    Google Scholar 

  4. Collins (2014) English dictionary: definition of magpie. Retrieved 26th March 2014 from http://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/magpie?showCookiePolicy=true

  5. Garson GD (2012) Generalized linear models / generalized estimating equations, 2013th edn. Statistical Associates Publishers, Asheboro

    Google Scholar 

  6. Greenberg R (2003) The role of neophobia and neophilia in the development of innovative behaviour of birds. In: Reader SM, Laland KN (eds) Animal innovation. OUP, Oxford, pp 175–196

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  7. Greenberg R, Mettke-Hofmann C (2001) Ecological aspects of neophobia and neophilia in birds. Curr Ornithol 16:119–178

    Google Scholar 

  8. Heinrich B (1988) Why do ravens fear their food? Condor 90:950–952

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Heinrich B (1995) Neophilia and exploration in juvenile common ravens, Corvus corax. Anim Behav 50:695–704

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Huber L, Gajdon GK (2006) Technical intelligence in animals: the kea model. Anim Cogn 9:295–305

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Jacobs IF, Osvath M, Osvath H, Mioduszewska B, von Bayern AMP, Kacelnik A (2014) Object caching in corvids: incidence and significance. Behav Proc 102:25–32

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Manchester Evening News (2007) Magpie swoops to steal keys and tools. Retrieved 26th March 2014, from http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/magpie-swoops-to-steal-keys-and-tools-1045325

  13. Schaedelin FC, Taborsky M (2009) Extended phenotypes as signals. Biol Rev 84:293–313

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Sergio F, Blas J, Blanco G, Tanferna A, Lopez L, Lemus JA et al (2011) Raptor nest decorations are a reliable threat against conspecifics. Science 331:327–330

    CAS  PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. The Telegraph (2008) Magpie steals woman’s engagement ring and buries it in nest for three years. Retrieved 26th March 2014, from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/2637365/Magpie-steals-womans-engagement-ring-and-buries-it-in-nest-for-three-years.html

  16. Vernelli T (2013) The complexity of neophobia in a generalist foraging corvid: the common magpie (Pica pica). Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Exeter

  17. Winterman D (2008) Why are magpies so often hated? BBC News Mag. Retrieved 26th March 2014, from http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/7316384.stm

Download references

Acknowledgments

We thank RSPCA, Secret World Wildlife Rescue, and Crows are Us for providing rescued magpies for the captive study. TVS was funded by the University of Exeter Research Studentship.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to T. V. Shephard.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 1594 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Shephard, T.V., Lea, S.E.G. & Hempel de Ibarra, N. ‘The thieving magpie’? No evidence for attraction to shiny objects. Anim Cogn 18, 393–397 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-014-0794-4

Download citation

Keywords

  • Corvid
  • Object attraction
  • Magpie
  • Neophobia
  • Nest ornamentation