Researchers perform magic tricks for birds, who are not amused

A Eurasian jay takes a skeptical view of magic.

Enlarge / A Eurasian jay takes a skeptical view of magic. (credit: Luc Viatour)

Most magic tricks require a fairly sophisticated understanding of how humans perceive the world. To fall for a trick, people have to see things they perceive as important and ignore things that are actually important. Understanding why magic works can tell us important things about how humans direct their attention and form expectations.

At some point, behavioral scientists realized they could take this idea and apply it to animals. If animals are also fooled by magic tricks, we can identify where our cognitive skills overlap. If the trick fails, we can identify points where our understandings of the world diverge. Unsurprisingly, most early experiments were done with other primates, as they would likely have a lot of overlap with us. But a new study attempts magic with birds and finds that many tricks just don’t work with them.

Not easily fooled

The birds in the study were Eurasian jays, who are part of a family (corvids) known to be unusually intelligent. Many species of jays cache food (if you’ve ever found that oak trees have been seeded in your flower pots, jays are probably why) and often engage in elaborate deceptions to keep their fellow jays from stealing their caches. So it’s not a stretch to think that magic might be something birds could comprehend.

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