Lori Anderson: Debunking myths takes shine off life

The magpie is the thieving little rogue of the avian world. Every time I see one I feel like saying: “Turn out your pockets!” Even their black and white plumage reminds me of a comic-strip thief’s striped jersey, the only thing missing from their criminal ensemble is the little black mask and large canvas sack marked “swag”.

Magpies arent the bling-obsessed pilferers we all thought. Picture: Getty

The collective nouns for these light-beaked footpads is either a “tiding” or a “conventicle” but surely a more appropriate word is an “Asbo of magpies”. Tales of their criminal endeavours have been circulating for centuries buttressed by “discoveries” of nests resembling an Aladdin’s cave of gems, rings and stolen necklaces.

In 1817 Rossini even wrote an opera, La Gazza LadraThe Thieving Magpie in which a poor servant girl is sentenced to death for the crimes of this mischievous bird with a sharp and beady eye for a shiny object. A century later Herge, had Tintin, the blonde-quiffed reporter-turned-detective, investigate the theft of the Castafiore Emerald whose culprit once again turned out to possess sharp talons rather than sticky fingers.

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After centuries as the prime suspect whenever a shiny heist goes down, we learned this week that this may have been a case of wrongful conviction. The Centre for the Research in Animal Behaviour (Crab), based at Exeter University, has scuttled forward as defence counsel with Dr Toni Shephard in the role of Rumpole of the Bailey. The team’s claim is extraordinary: magpies aren’t sneaky thieves who love a bit of bling, instead the birds shy away from shiny objects, which they actually fear.

In an experiment the team from Crab took shiny items such as screws, foil rings and pieces of aluminium foil and placed them in mounds 30 centimetres away from a pile of nuts. They also duplicated the shiny items but covered them in blue paint. In the experiment the magpies ignored both the shiny objects and their blue duplicates, only twice in 64 tests did the magpie pick up the shiny object, before discarding it immediately.

As Dr Shephard, the lead author of the study explained: “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.

“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 that the folklore surrounding them is a result of cultural generalisation and anecdotes rather than evidence.”

A little part of me sags whenever a “fact” pumped up by generations of received wisdom suddenly deflates into just another urban myth to be kicked around, as so often the stories are better than the ordinary reality. I still can’t pay a visit to Kelvingrove Art Gallery without thinking about the poor architect who leapt to his death from one of the towers after discovering that the structure was built the wrong way round, this is despite the fact that I know that this is nonsense and the structure was deliberately built to face the 1911 International Exhibition and not Dumbarton Road.

I like the idea that Albert Einstein failed maths at school for the hope it ignites in those who struggle in their early years, it is just unfortunate that when asked about this supposed fact he replied: “I never failed in mathematics. Before I was 15 I had mastered differential and integral calculus.” That’s the dullards told then. I chuckle at JFK announcing from beside the Berlin Wall: “Ich bin ein Berliner” which has been wrongly translated as: “I’m a jelly doughnut” because a “berliner” was also a popular pastry. Marie-Antoinette never did say of the poor that if they lacked bread: “qu’ils mangent de la brioche” – “let them eat cake”. Rousseau included the cruel quip in his Confessions published in 1766 when the future queen was ten years old.

Over the years I’ve learned that there is no elephant graveyard and that the Great Wall of China cannot be seen from outer space, that a tooth will not dissolve overnight in 
a glass of Coca-Cola and that 
you cannot fit the entire population of the planet on the Isle of Wight, though all 
7.1 billion of us will fit on to South Georgia in the Falkland Islands. There are no alligators in the sewers of Manhattan, despite rumours beginning in the 1930s, and now we know that magpies aren’t attracted by shiny objects.

I may be wiser this week than I was last but I can’t help but feel a little disappointed that these birds have lost a certain roguish allure. Like magpies of old, we pick and choose with considerable care and the stories we like to keep are shinier than others.

Next they will be telling me that cat burglars aren’t cats.