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Magpies: Not the collectors of shiny trinkets we think

Photo: Press Association Images

A magpie is not as likely to take a shine to your shiny things, research has shown.

In a series of experiments, scientists debunked the common myth that magpies are greedy collectors of glittery trinkets.

The boffins found that far from being attracted to shiny objects, the black and white birds tended to avoid them.

The tests were carried out at the University of Exeter both on wild magpies and a group of the birds housed at a rescue centre.

Under carefully controlled conditions, they were exposed to both shiny and non-shiny items and their reactions recorded.

Credit: Mike Egerton/EMPICS Sport

Lead researcher Dr Toni Shephard, from the university's Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour, 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 - in the 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. It seems likely, therefore, that the folklore surrounding them is a result of cultural generalisation and anecdotes rather than evidence."

Co-author Dr Natalie Hempel de Ibarra, also from the University of Exeter, said: "Surprisingly little research has investigated the cognitive mechanisms of magpie behaviour.

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."

The magpie's tarnished reputation runs through folklore, literature and music.

Rossini's opera The Thieving Magpie, first performed in 1817, tells the story of a servant girl wrongly accused of silver thefts that were committed by a magpie.

NOT a real magpie... Credit: Steve Morton/EMPICS Sport

One episode of the Tintin comic series, The Castafiore Emerald, has a similar plot with a magpie making off with a prized emerald.

Magpies have traditionally been regarded as bearers of bad omens and associated with the devil.

In Scotland, a magpie near the window of a house is said to be a harbinger of death.