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Boffins show sleight-of-hand tricks to Corvids, find they are smarter than people

Eurasian Jays mostly unmoved by illusionist jiggery-pokery, more interested in worms

Psychology boffins at the University of Cambridge have been pushing back the barriers of understanding via the unlikely-sounding practice of trying to fool birds with magic tricks.

The team of scientists from one of Britain's most august seats of learning decided to embark on this project in order to test whether the birds – six Eurasian Jays, formally known as Garrulus glandarius, which are chatty, strikingly coloured birds of the Corvid family – perceived the tricks in the same way that humans do, or whether their understanding of the world was fundamentally different.

The same tricks were also shown to 80 human participants to compare the reactions between the two groups.

Eurasian Jays were chosen as they display techniques in the wild that require a certain amount of misdirection, meaning the concept is not entirely foreign to them. Like squirrels, Corvids – the family that includes crows, ravens, jackdaws, magpies and jays – are known to store food for later consumption, a technique known as caching. However, if another bird is watching them, they may pretend to put the food in several different places to reduce the chances of their rival pinching it.

The team showed the two test groups three different sleight-of-hand magic tricks that are used by magicians to make objects seemingly appear and disappear: palming, where a magician hides an object in their hand while pretending it is empty; the French drop, where the magician pretends to move an object from one hand to the other, while in reality keeping it in the same hand; and the fast pass, where the magician moves an object between their hands so quickly that the audience does not see it (as seen in the tweet below).

According to the results of the tests, jays are actually very hard to fool with this sort of tomfoolery, seemingly because the fact they don't have hands and have no preconceptions of how they work means that they have no presumptions over what happens to the objects being supposedly passed about.

While the easily-duped human subjects were consistently fooled by all three tricks, the much smarter jays saw right through the first two – palming and the French drop – because they apparently didn't pay any attention to the trick at all and just expected the tasty worm involved to still be where it was when they last saw it.

However, they did prove susceptible to being fooled by the fast pass. This is odd as jays, like many birds, process visual information much faster than humans and are therefore capable of picking up details humans might miss.

Elias Garcia-Pelegrin, Researcher in Comparative Cognition and Evolutionary Psychology at University of Cambridge, told The Reg: “As the trick relies on fast-paced movements... one would assume the birds would see through it. We hypothesised that in this case, the success of the effect relies, most probably, on an attention blind spot rather than the bird being unable to see the worm.”

“When the same movements are done slower or in a more exaggerated way, then the bird has no problem following,” he added, before suggesting that confirmation would require “further evidence”. Although we at The Reg feel doing this too often may lead to the bird feeling patronised and becoming sarcastic.

Garcia-Pelegrin is himself a magician and claims he “did magic shows to pay for beers during undergrad uni”. He was one of two illusionists on the department staff who performed the tricks for the experiment, the other being his colleague Prof Clive Wilkins, the Department of Psychology's artist-in-residence and a member of the Magic Circle.

Having established that birds, or Eurasian Jays at least, would not be ideal marks for aspiring conjurors, Garcia-Pelegrin has not ruled out using his talents to try and vex more animals in the name of science.

“The more different visual systems I can perform to the better. It would then offer good comparisons,” he said.

Suggestions that he could try to teach a crow to caw a woman in half were met with less than wholehearted enthusiasm. ®

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