The notion that magpies steal shiny objects is ancient and widespread

On a sunny evening recently my son and his housemates decided to have a barbecue in their back garden. 

The notion that magpies steal shiny objects is ancient and widespread

My son left his keys out on a table in the garden overnight and when he went to collect them the next morning they were gone.

An exhaustive search failed to find them and they sat down to try and solve the mystery. There is a high block wall all around the garden. His car key was on the ring but the car was still parked outside so it was unlikely that a human thief had scaled the wall. Using the Sherlock Holmes doctrine that you eliminate the impossible and what remains, however improbable, is the truth, the blame was laid on the particularly large magpie that included their back garden in his territory.

Male magpies do vary in size, particularly in tail length, and research has shown that those with particularly long tails have better and larger territories. The bit of leafy Dublin suburbia my son lives in was obviously a choice territory and it was held by a particularly large magpie.

The notion that magpies steal shiny objects is ancient and widespread. The Collins English Dictionary states that a magpie is “a person who hoards small objects”.

The notion is the basis for the plot of Rossini’s 1817 opera La Gazza Ladra, or The Thieving Magpie, in which a servant girl is sentenced to death for repeated thefts of silver when the real culprit is a magpie. There is also anecdotal evidence that is more recent. A missing engagement ring was found in a magpie’s nest in Britain in 2008 and the previous year, in Rochdale, a magpie was reported to have stolen keys, coins and a spanner from a car repair garage.

However, acting as counsel for the defence, I checked the scientific evidence. In 2014, psychologists from the University of Exeter decided to carry out exhaustive tests on captive magpies and wild birds. They belonged to the respected Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour. They tried tempting 64 wild magpies with shiny objects and carried out similar tests on tame ones. The results were the same each time. The birds were not only uninterested in the objects, they were rather nervous of them, to the extent that they put them off their food.

The scientists were convinced that they had dispelled an urban myth and exonerated the magpie of repeated charges of petty larceny. However, that leaves another mystery. How did the myth start? How did magpies get a reputation for theft in so many different cultures and why has it persisted for so long?

I haven’t been able to come up with a satisfactory answer to that but two days later my son’s keys turned up. Apparently the last house mate to go to bed had put them in a safe place and then forgotten where they were.

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