There can be few British birds which are so closely connected to our superstitions and folklore than the magpie but there is more to the magpie than a rhyme.
Origins of the name ‘magpie’
The magpie’s name has two distinct parts.
‘Mag’ means to chatter and refers to the magpie’s loud and sometimes constant chattering calls. In fact the magpie is an able vocalist often mimicking other sounds. The term ‘mag’ has been used in many alternative, local names for the magpie including Maggie, Madge, Margaret and Margot.
Shakespeare referred to it as the ‘maggot-pie’, a choice which might seem to refer to the fact that we often see magpies feeding on carrion, but in fact it is more likely to have been derived from a French name for the magpie ‘Margot la pie’.
‘Pie’ is a reference to the pied plumage of the bird. In years gone by the term ‘pied’ was used to describe anything with a mixture of colours, though now it is more often used to describe something which is black and white. In fact the magpie does contain a mixture of colours because the ‘black’ parts of its plumage, particularly its tail, are iridescent.
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Superstitions surrounding magpies
Unfortunately for the magpie, pied plumage has an association with evil and bad fortune. It is said that the magpie was the only bird not to go into the ark with Noah, instead it sat on top, swearing and chattering as the world drowned. It was also the only bird not to sing to comfort Jesus on the cross and after his death it was the only bird not to enter a proper period of mourning, this may have been due to its partial black plumage. The magpie is known to steal shiny objects; it is said that the magpie contains some of the Devil’s blood and it is often associated with death through its habit of eating dead animals.
The only ‘superstition’ in the last paragraph which has any truth is the one about shiny objects. Magpies are intelligent and inquisitive creatures so it is only natural that they might be interested in unusual objects. But we have really exaggerated this trait in order to brand the magpie as a thief, from Rossini’s opera The Thieving Magpie to our continued use of magpies on posters warning about thieves operating in certain areas.
Given this long list of negative traits it isn’t surprising that we are left with the feeling that magpies are to be mistrusted and we have a rhyme to remind us of this:
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 rhyme has many variations and extensions, many of which are likely to have been added for poetic effect, but all begin with ‘one for sorrow’. Encountering a single magpie is regarded as unlucky and around the country people believe there are ways to negate the bad luck which might be associated by an encounter with a single magpie.
I was always told salute, or wave, to a single magpie to show respect. My wife tells me that she was told to blink, in so-doing she could pretend to have seen two magpies. More entertaining options include pinching your companion (if you have one) three times; saying “Hello Mr Magpie, how is your wife?” or revolving three times on the spot.
Persecution of magpies
In the Middle Ages the magpie was quite common and had a reputation for being quite bold and even tame. People kept magpies as pets and used them to protect their chickens from foxes because their chattering calls would alert them to danger. But a growing dislike of magpies led to them being trapped and killed so that by Victorian times the magpie was far less numerous, even in danger of extinction according to some naturalists of the time. The same naturalists also noted that magpies had become far more timid and wary of humans.
Magpies are still persecuted with people blaming them for the decline in song birds, since they do take eggs and young from other birds’ nests. The more likely truth is that we like to have a scapegoat. The decline in songbird populations is, in the greatest part, down to the way in which we manage the landscape. Studies undertaken to examine the impact of magpie populations on those of neighbouring songbirds have found little, if any, impact.
I wonder whether our opinion of the magpie is so strongly tied in with myths passed down through the generations that we are incapable of judging it fairly. In spite of what we regard as its flaws the magpie is a hugely charismatic bird, in truth colourful in so many ways.
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