Science Exonerates Theft-Accused Magpies

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PARIS - Magpies, black-and-white birds which for generations have been known as jewelry thieves, are in fact wary of shiny objects, a myth-busting study has claimed.

Magpie (pica pica) Ile de France, France

Credit: Getty Creative

In a series of experiments, British animal behaviorists found that, far from being kleptomaniacs, the birds were in fact fearful of unknown objects.

The team had arranged a selection of objects, shiny and dull, at different sites on the University of Exeter campus and observed the reaction of wild and captive magpies.

Items included metal screws and foil rings -- half of them painted blue with matt paint and the rest left shiny -- and a piece of aluminum foil, with piles of nuts in between.

"Magpies only made contact with a shiny object twice in 64 tests," a university statement said of the study, published in the journal Animal Cognition.

"Both times a silver ring was picked up and immediately discarded."

Rather than being attracted by shiny objects, the birds exhibited neophobia, a fear of new things, the authors said. They were wary when an object, shiny or matt, was anywhere near a nut pile they were feeding from.

Magpies are widely considered to be among the most intelligent of birds. In European folklore, they are often depicted as thieves with a penchant for nicking jewelry from window sills for their nests.

The bird's supposed kleptomaniac nature is sung about in a Rossini opera, and featured in one of Tintin's comic book adventures.

"It seems likely... that the folklore surrounding them is a result of cultural generalization and anecdotes rather than evidence," the study concluded.

"Here we demonstrate once more that they are smart -- instead of being compulsively drawn towards shiny objects, magpies decide to keep a safe distance when these objects are novel and unexpected," said study co-author Natalie Hempel de Ibarra.

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