‘One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told’
The European Magpie (Pica pica) has always been a suspicious bird; being both black and white people have been unsure whether it is an omen of good or bad luck (though most tend to go for bad). The rhyme above is well-known in Britain, having first appeared in print in 1780 – though it may have been used orally for many years previous, as the rhyme suggests, seeing a solitary Magpie is particular bad luck. All black birds have always been associated with the devil or witchcraft and combined with its mischievous nature and (alleged) thieving tendencies the poor Magpie has never been looked on in a favourable light (except in Korea where the bird is good fortune and a symbol of joy). One tradition that has roots in Yorkshire claims that to repel the bird’s bad luck one must raise ones hat or bow to it upon coming across one.
Nowadays the Magpie has received nasty looks not because of its satanic connotations but because of its perceived detrimental effect on songbird populations; various studies (Stoate & Thomson 1998) have explored this claim and found no negative connection between high Magpie density and songbird numbers (they do undoubtedly consume nestlings and eggs but at a natural level, the decline of songbirds is much more likely connected to habitat loss or pollution). Magpies are very opportunistic feeders and will eat anything from berries to beetles, this is perhaps part of the reason why they have been able to colonise urban areas so effectively in the last fifty years.
This crows name may seem cryptic at first, the ‘pie’ part does not refer to its colour but actually means ‘pointed’ perhaps in reference to its tail, indeed it was originally known as simply the ‘Pie’ – the ‘Mag’ part was added because of the birds chattering calls which folk likened to a woman’s nagging (Mag is short for Maggie – a generic name for women). Before anyone gets offended I would like to point out that the Magpie is one of the smartest animals on Earth; its relative brain size is comparable to chimpanzees. Magpies show social cognition, imagination, reasoning, episodic memory, self-recognition (the only non-mammalian animal able to do so), tool use, food storage and have even exhibited signs of grieving. Captive bred Magpies have also been able to mimic the human voice and in the wild when in groups they can use complex strategies for defence or when hunting live prey (such as small mammals, voles and shrews being common prey).
I have always thought Magpies to be strikingly attractive birds, so I am always puzzled as to how anyone could despise its presence; personally I greatly enjoy seeing them around and there is a lot of entertainment and interesting observations to be had from watching their behaviour. This bird’s plumage is very pretty; the head and nape are sooty black but the wings have an iceberg-blue iridescence while the long fan-like tail is a shiny moss-green. The white patches on the belly, shoulders and wings are what really make the Magpie stand out from the other crows; when perched the bird resembles a man in a suit and when in flight it can look almost tropical as the white centers to the primaries bordered with black stand out boldly like a lino-cut. The Magpie is clearly adapted to a woodland lifestyle; its wings are broad and rounded to allow controlled flight through dense branches and its remarkably long tail is used for precise in-flight movements and stabilisation (perhaps for display too). I once found an immaculate but quite dead Magpie near my home, not wanting to let such a pretty thing go rotten I kept its wing and tail feathers and arranged the wing feathers as they would appear in flight on a bit of card – they are rather like jewels and I treasure them as such.
On a winter’s day Magpie nests stand out as large balls of sticks high up in leafless trees or shrubs, they construct a new one each year – magpies are the largest British birds to build a completely domed nest. At this time of year Magpies are particularly conspicuous, this is because all of this year’s young have fledged and are now in full adult plumage – winter has yet to take its toll and they tend to hang around in family groups too so they seem especially numerous. I love watching them as they bicker and squabble and hop around on the grass as though they were spring-loaded, cocking their tails high above their backs in excitement – they look like little children yet you can see they are cunning and intelligent. I just wish people would stop being so prejudiced against them, maybe they can be a bit noisy and occasionally take chicks (for their own young) but surely their sharp wits, attractive appearance, humorous and interesting behaviour and tameness make up for these slight failings?