Gemma Fallon, of Ardgowan School, Oamaru, asks :-

Why do magpies go for shiny things?

Clare Veltman, an ecologist at Massey University, responded.

There are lots of birds that decorate their nests with unusual or colourful items. In Australia for example, satin bower birds place pegs and yellow flowers around the entrance of the archways that they make for impressing females. Apparently, female bower birds settle for the male with the most eye-catching display.

Strangely enough, magpies in New Zealand don't collect shiny objects. English and European magpies do, but they belong to a completely different species. Our magpies are natives of Australia that were introduced to control insect pests. They like to play with each other and with toys when they are young, but don't go especially for shiny things. Once, I watched a young magpie having fun with a cardboard label from a discarded wheat sack. He, or she, spent ages lying on the ground tugging its toy between bill and feet, and eventually flew over to share the toy with other young magpies in a nearby flock. To me, this looked like exploratory behaviour. We all learn about our environment during play, and magpies are no exception.

What our magpies do collect is interesting sounds. They listen to one another and to other noisy things like telephones or tuis and often copy what they hear. It means that a magpie in Oamaru sounds different from another magpie in say, Palmerston North. A bit like humans really.