Have you ever wondered if magpies are attracted to shiny things? If you were to take a peek in their nests, would they be adorned with stolen jewellery and metallic objects?
My interest is piqued, are magpies thieving scoundrels or, is it just myth.
The results of scientific testing show that magpies are no more drawn to shiny objects than they are dull items.
It would appear that the origins of the belief herald from a couple of centuries ago, and the misconception grew right up until the modern-day.
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Why we believe magpies are thieves
In 1815, two French playwrights wrote a popular piece, La Pie Voleuse. Translated means The Thieving Magpie, a title that should have given the audience members a clue to the outcome!
A scullery maid accused of stealing the family silver, a crime she vehemently denies. Disbelieved, she is sentenced to death. Tension builds until the closing scene where she escapes the guillotine as it becomes apparent that a magpie is a culprit.
Rossini set the play to music allowing the opera, La Gazza Ladra, to reach much wider audiences.
It appears that the moniker of thieving magpie stuck and has followed the misjudged bird ever since.
Are magpies attracted to shiny things?
I know that several birds are confused by reflections, often mistaking them for a rival bird. To this end, gardeners use metallic strips, old CD’s, and shiny paper to deter birds from seedbeds and vegetable patches.
If all birds fear shininess, why would magpies be the only ones attracted to it?
Because they’re not; as some scientists from Exeter University set out to prove.
They arranged three piles on a table. The first was a selection of small, shiny objects; screws, ring pulls, scrunched up tin foil.
The second pile included the same things, this time painted in a dull shade of blue.
The third contained seeds and nuts; favourite snacks of the Eurasian magpie.
In a series of 64 individual tests, magpies only showed interest in pile one twice. As quickly as they picked an item up, they dropped it. Magpies are members of the same families as crows and jays, all three species are renowned for being inquisitive.
The magpies showed no interest in pile two and eat significantly less from pile three than the scientists would have expected.
The birds avoided piles one and two; proving no preference between shiny or dull.
They concluded that not only were the magpies not attracted to the shiny objects, but they were also almost distracted and nervous of them.
Their actions proved that they were wary of eating in such proximity to shiny items.
Are there shiny items in magpie nests?
Magpies have a reputation for hoarding shiny items in their nest. This is another myth; their large, domed nests are relatively neat affairs found high in thorny trees and bushes.
If you find an abandoned nest with shiny things in, it is most likely that of a black kite. They believe that the mirrored items cast enough reflection to warn off predators.
Are magpies misunderstood?
The character of the magpie is much maligned, though sometimes deservedly so.
They happily raid the nests of small songbirds and steal the eggs and young for food.
As we realise that magpies aren’t attracted to shiny things, the greater the opportunity becomes to uses reflective products to prevent them from terrorising any nests in our gardens.
However, it’s a double-edged sword; metallic strips also keep the songbirds away.