Experienced magicians may be able to deceive a large audience with their tricks. But birds are a little harder to catch. That’s the somewhat surprising result of a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Proving that all is not as it seems can be a short job description of a magician. After all, they often make fun of the expectations of their audience. “So it’s quite interesting to apply such magic tricks to animals to see if they have the same expectations as us,” said Elias Garcia-Pelegrin, a psychologist at the University of Cambridge.
So researchers set to work with a few jays, particularly clever birds that are not easily fooled. The researchers used their best magic tricks in an attempt to trick the birds but mostly failed.
Tricks were usually used that do work for people because of the anticipation. For example, think of ‘Le Tourniquet’, a trick to make a small object like a coin disappear. The ‘Palm to Palm Transfer’ was also used several times: birds were shown a worm that was hidden in one hand. Then it seemed like the worm was being passed on, but it wasn’t always like that.
While the subjects involved in the study were often mistaken, the jays almost never did. Only when the hands moved very quickly, the birds were sometimes surprised. Logical, according to the researchers. The faster the hands move, the faster the birds have to turn their heads. The position of their eyes may cause the jays to constantly switch between one eye and the other, limiting their vision and making it harder for them to keep an eye on the worm.
“Our results suggest that jays may have different expectations when observing human actions,” the researchers said in their conclusion. The human brain is primarily guided by the way human hands work, but birds watch the worm, not so much the hands. And that works flawlessly.