I was watching a magpie in the garden yesterday, a big bold bird, its black and white feathers pristine, with iridescent blue among the black, and thinking how handsome it was. Its eyes were bright and fierce and it was watching me with what looked like real intelligence. But these belligerent birds stir strong emotions among people, and are widely hated, so I fell to wondering why,..
When anyone mentions magpies I think we tend to think or three things: The rhyme “One for sorrow, two for joy…” the hip and trendy kid’s TV programme of that name, popular when I was a teenager, and the fact that magpies are thieves. Seeing a magpie when I was a child was quite rare. Now it is one of the most common birds in the UK. They are described as challenging and arrogant and, love them or hate them, you can’t miss them. Their numbers have increased by 112% over the last 30 years. They are scavengers and collect objects and ‘cache’ food just in case there’s a shortage later on. They are also seen as predators, eating other birds’ eggs and their young, as well as plants
Where suspicion of the bird exists it often goes back to folklore and myth where magpies were thought to be bearers of bad omens and associated with the devil. You can even find negative comments as far back as Shakespeare’s time, when their “chattering” was complained about.
Of all birds it is probably the poor old magpie that is most associated with superstitions. However, most superstitions regarding magpies are based around just a single bird. Throughout Britain it is thought to be unlucky to see a lone magpie and there are a number of beliefs about what you should do to prevent bad luck.
In most parts of the UK people will salute a single magpie and say “Good morning Mr Magpie. How is your lady wife today?” By acknowledging the magpie in this way you are showing him proper respect in the hope that he will not pass bad fortune on to you. By referring to the magpie’s wife you are also implying that there are two magpies, which bring joy rather than sorrow according to the popular rhyme.
Other things you can do to prevent the bad luck a lone magpie may bring include doffing your hat, spitting three times over your shoulder or even flapping your arms like wings and cawing to imitate the magpie’s missing mate! Fortunately, as we are now pretty much overrun with the things, I don’t think I shall need to do much spitting and flapping!
As the well known rhyme “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,” shows it is only seeing a lone magpie that brings bad luck and groups of magpies are said to predict the future. There are many different versions of this rhyme with some counting as high as 20 birds. Like many other birds, magpies mate for life and this may be the inspiration for this rhyme.
Here are a few magpie facts, rather than myths and superstitions:
- It takes a pair of magpies around 40 days to build their large, domed nest.
- A typical magpie clutch is six eggs.
- Only the female magpie incubates the eggs – it takes 24 days for them to hatch.
- Young magpies leave the nest around 27 days after hatching.
- Magpies are omnivorous, eating a wide variety of food, ranging from grain and fruit to carrion.
- Magpies have been recorded catching and killing frogs, lizards, snakes, bats, mice, voles and even rabbits, as well as small birds.
- Magpies will cache surplus food during times of plenty.
- They are extremely intelligent and have been shown to mourn their dead.
- Magpies can recognise themselves in a mirror – the only non-mammal to do so.
- They can talk (imitate) as well as mynah birds and jackdaws – in fact most birds can be taught to talk… but that’s another blog altogether!