Did you know that jays fall for magic tricks and don’t always like it?

Eurasian jay

Some time ago, a video of an orangutan vividly reacting to a disappearing fruit trick circulated on the internet.

Besides collecting YouTube likes, showing magic tricks to animals can also help to understand animals’ cognitive processes and their perception of the world.

Recently, scientists studied how Eurasian jays (Garrulus glandarius) react to magic tricks and unfulfilled expectations. Jays are corvids – a group of birds known for their highly developed cognitive skills. They even use tricks themselves – when they know they are being watched, they act as if they are hiding food in many places, but only truly do so in some, cleverly manipulating the food with their beak.

Recently, scientists showed jays a trick in which they pretended to insert a treat in one of two plastic cups, but actually hid the treat in their hand, just as a magician would do when trying to fool people. They then turned both cups upside down and the bird could turn them over to get the treat. The trick was that beforehand, the scientists had already put a treat into the chosen cup, either of the same kind as they showed the jay, or a different one. If they put in a different one, it could be either more or less desirable to the particular jay than the shown treat.

The trick of ‘swapping’ food. Diagram from the original article

The jays consistently picked up the cup into which the scientist ‘inserted’ the food, but reacted differently depending on what they expected and what they found. If the birds found the same treat that they ‘saw’ being placed in the cup, they just ate it quickly, regardless of whether it was their favourite treat or not. However, if the bird found a better treat under the cup than the one the human showed to it, it took a little longer to eat it and sometimes the jay would look into the cup as if to check where the expected food was. However, the most dramatic reaction occurred when the bird expected a favourite treat but found an inferior one. Then it often checked the cup again, looked under the other one and in about half of the cases did not eat the food at all (even if it would normally eat this treat when it was expecting it).

This strong reaction to an unpleasant surprise is similar to how humans react when they lose something. No one likes it if they are promised something but they don’t get it. And just like in humans, those jays that were more dominant showed stronger dissatisfaction – they were more likely to reject food that was worse than they expected.

I am curious to see what future experiments using magic tricks will teach us about animals.

If you want to see recordings from this experiment, click here.

Jay photo by Steffi Wacker from Pexels.

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