Can You Beat A Bird At Spotting A Magic Trick?

A Eurasian jay chooses which hand it thinks contains a worm after the performance of a magic trick. If the bird got it right, it gets to eat the worm. Image Credit: Elias Garcia-Pelegrin 

Videos of magicians performing tricks to animals and their astonished reactions have attracted millions of views online. A team of scientists has spotted an opportunity to compare the way humans and other animals think by showing the same trick to volunteers and European Jays, comparing their capacities to see through the deception. They found the birds win on average, but they’re just as susceptible as us to some of the tools in a good magician’s kit, while resistant to others.

Last year a team at Cambridge University published a paper arguing for the potential of performing magic tricks to animals in neuroscience research. As the authors pointed out, certain corvids make particularly promising study subjects. Not only are these birds famously smart, some members of the family like to trick their fellow forest dwellers, pretending to store their fall nuts in one spot, but secretly hiding them elsewhere.

PhD student Elias Garcia-Pelegrin has now followed through on his team’s proposal, performing a trio of magic tricks to Eurasian jays (Garrulus glandarius).

Garcia-Pelegrin is a professional magician as well as a cognitive scientist. As the video below shows, he used three standard tricks - known as palm transfer, French drop, and fast pass - to test six Eurasian jays’ capacity to determine which hand held a worm. The birds got to eat the worm if their first guess was right. Garcia-Pelegrin also performed various other hand movements for comparison.

“These magic effects were specifically chosen as they utilize different cues and expectations that mislead the spectator into thinking one object has or has not been transferred from one hand to the other,” Garcia-Pelegrin and co-authors write in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The jays usually saw through the French drop or the palm transfer, choosing the correct hand 70 and 60 percent of the time respectively. The fast pass was a different matter, with the jays getting just 26 percent of trials right.

Videos of Garcia-Pelegrin doing the same tricks, jay free, were shown to 80 humans to see how often they could pick which hand held the worm. Success ranged between 13 and 27 percent for the three tricks. Perhaps the humans found the reward less motivating – it’s a cheerier thought than having been outsmarted by those we call bird brains. On the other hand, humans picked the correct hand almost perfectly in most of the comparison tests, whereas even the jays’ strongest subjects produced substantial error rates.

A Eurasian jay keeps one eye on Elias Garcia-Pelegrin as he performs a "French drop", a magic trick that fools most humans, but the jays can usually see through. Image Credit: Elias Garcia-Pelegrin 

The similarities between the way jays hide food from those who would steal it and the way magicians deceive the public are striking. Not only do jays and their fellow corvids; “Cache food items discretely in among multiple bluff caching events,” the paper notes, they also; “Conceal items in their throat pouch, akin to a magician’s use of false pockets, and will manipulate food items within their beak similar to sleight-of-hand techniques performed by magicians.”

Nevertheless, jays have not evolved the same expectations about the way humans move objects from hand to hand that we have. Magicians rely on these expectations in their audiences. "If you were used to objects flying or objects vanishing in mid-air, then magic wouldn't surprise you at all,” Garcia-Pelegrin told Inverse when the research began. Without these expectations, only the fast pass proved a reliable deception.


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