SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN~ Magic Is (Literally) for the Birds~ What conjuring techniques can reveal about animal cognition ~ an article by Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik October 13, 2020

The magician climbs into the cage to perform a show for one. For this special event, he eschews coins and cards for peanuts. He rolls his sleeves and faces his captive audience: a corvid bird by the name of Stuka. He shows Stuka a peanut and waves it through the air, sweeping it from one hand to another. Stuka tracks the treat, moving its head like a spectator at a tennis match. Then the magician opens his right hand and shows … nothing! The nut has disappeared! Stuka seems to look around for the missing legume, but the magician pulls it from inside his mouth. Was it there all along? Now the magician vanishes the peanut again, pulling it from his ear next. The peanut keeps magically switching from one place to another, and a second bird approaches to watch, perhaps out of curiosity. The question is, what are those birdbrains thinking?

Elias Garcia-Pelegrin learned to perform magic as an undergraduate student studying drama at University College London (UCL). Upon graduating—and realizing that acting wouldn’t pay the bills—he worked as a bar magician. He also took a job as a zookeeper in an aquarium and grew fascinated with the possible role of social transmission in the mating rituals of penguins. By then, he had gone back to college for a second degree in psychology. Now a Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge, Garcia-Pelegrin is set to apply his multifaceted background in psychology, zoology and magic to the study of animal cognition.

Garcia-Pelegrin’s approach, presented in a recent Science perspective co-authored by Alexandra Schnell, Clive Wilkins, and Nicola S. Clayton, follows in the footsteps of research deploying visual illusions to better understand perception in such disparate species as lions, horses, monkeys and bees. Their framework also extends prior explorations of the intersection of magic, psychology and neuroscience in subjects ranging from human audiences to nonhuman minds.

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