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Crows And Magpies Just Have Bad Reputations

Two large crows stand near each other while on an outdoor table.

What’s one of the strangest things you do? I have a friend who can’t help, but always “knock on wood.” One thing I used to do is whenever I saw a bunch of crows somewhere, I hid or held tightly onto my gold jewelry. I was always afraid a crow will swoop at me and rip my necklace clean off my neck.

Recently though, I found out that crows don’t really like to take shiny objects. It’s just an old belief that crows and their cousins, magpies, steal trinkets and hoard them in their nests.

Shiny Food

But what about all those news stories about birds taking watches or car keys? Well, yes, some birds have done and will do that.

In one study done at the University of Exeter, though, researchers put food and various odds-and-ends in front of pairs of magpies. If the birds had liked shiny things, those objects—blue and silver rings and screws, and aluminum foil—would have been pretty attractive.

Instead, the magpies mostly ignored everything but the food, and in fact, the objects seemed to make them nervous. A couple of magpies touched the rings once they’d finished eating, but immediately lost interest in them.

A Fear Of Watches

Researchers observing that behavior noted it was like like oh, do I want this and more akin to checking, oh, can I eat this?

So instead of liking shiny trinkets, magpies and crows don’t really care. Or they may even actively fear unexpected objects in their environment.

It was likely just observational bias for how magpie and crows got their thieving reputations. People noticed when crows and magpies did pick up shiny baubles, but probably just didn’t notice or cared less when they picked up more mundane things.

Thank you to Renee Ha of the University of Washington for reviewing this episode’s script.

If you want to read about birds that are actually thieves, here’s a recent episode about how scrub jays are very suspicious of each other because of theft.

Sources And Further Reading:

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