• Nicholas J. Johnson

Scientists did magic tricks for birds and here's what they learnt.

Performing magic with birds isn't new.


The oldest recorded magic trick involves plucking a bird's head from its neck. (And putting it back on again. Otherwise, it's not really a trick is it?)


Magicians have made birds disappear, multiple, and even read minds. The 1965 film Judex features magician Channing Pollock dressed as a bird, making a bird appear for an audience who are also dressed like birds:



However, it's rare to see magicians performing for actual birds.


Until now.


Elias Garcia-Pelegrin, a Researcher in Comparative Cognition and Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Cambridge recently co-authored a paper describing the reactions of Eurasian jays to sleight-of-hand magic.


Birds have already demonstrated the ability to deceive and be deceived. The fork-tailed drongo mimic alarm calls to steal other animal's food, North American plovers will fake injuries to lure predators away from their young, and cuckoo hens lay their eggs in other bird's nests to trick them into raising their young.


This study sought to see how Eurasian jays react to sleight of hand. The researchers performed three tricks for the birds:


1) The French Drop: appearing to take an object in one hand while actually keeping it in the other

2) Palming: hiding an object

3) Fast pass: Throwing an object from one hand to another quicker than the eye can see.


The birds were not fooled by the French drop, instantly knowing which hand held the treat.



However, this wasn't because the birds saw through the ruse but rather they didn't see the ruse at all.


Recognising the action of taking (or pretending to take) an object is a learnt behaviour. Humans are fooled by the trick because their expectations based on previous experiences are confounded.


As the birds didn't have that experience, they weren't fooled.


I see the same when performing magic for young children. Toddlers are often completely unimpressed by magic as they don't yet have the expectations for the magician to confound. Everything is unexpected when you're two.


The birds were, however, fooled by the fast pass:


The object was in one hand, and then suddenly was in the other. The bird had enough experience of object permanence to be fooled.


This suggests that birds have similar blind spots and perception flaws as humans.


(They do perceive motion differently though. Did you know pigeons can't watch movies because their brains aren't fooled by 24 frames per second)


This study also shows that being fooled by magic isn't a sign of gullibility but rather a sign of experience, attention and critical thinking being manipulated.