The Folklore of Magpies
Magpies don’t get a very good press. They are accused of being thieves and of killing off songbirds. There’s a bit of truth in both allegations, but they are still part of nature’s rich tapestry and deserve respect.
The Magpie Life 101
There are about 20 species of magpie in the world and they are related to crows, jays, and ravens among others. They have a raucous call similar to that of their relatives. In Britain they used to be called just “pie.” Sometime in the 16th century the prefix “Mag” was added meaning “chaterer.”
They have a distinctive black and white plumage and an unmistakable long tail in flight.
They are found in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. And, everywhere they live, mythologies get tacked on to them.
They live in wooded areas, hedgerows, and gardens. They are gregarious, very inquisitive, and usually mate for life.
When a magpie is seen alone folklore says you must ask after its spouse. A lone magpie is thought to be sad and this has given rise to the rhyme One for sorrow, two for joy and so on.
Everywhere there are magpies people attach special powers to them.
Many British myths hinge on beliefs that magpies are harbingers of ill fortune.
Saluting magpies is an old English tradition and is said to ward off bad luck. Coming across a lone magpie the correct procedure is to say “Hello Mr. Magpie. How is Mrs. Magpie and all the little Magpies?” The superstitious can double down on these defences by spitting three times over their shoulders and flapping their arms like wings.
The birds are associated with witchcraft in Yorkshire and people used to cross themselves when they saw one. The Scots used to believe that magpies had a drop of the Devil’s blood under their tongues, and if one was seen near a window death could not be far behind. This may be tied to the legend that magpies did not mourn the crucifixion of Jesus.
The French had a more positive view of magpies and honoured them by tying bundles of shrubs such as laurel and heath high in a tree. This is in remembrance of when chattering magpies alerted people to the presence of a wolf.
In China, magpies are thought to bring good fortune, although killing one will bring the reverse. They are associated with happiness and in the northeast are regarded as sacred. The Manchu dynasty that governed China from the 17th to the 20th century employed the magpie as a symbol of its imperial rule.
Koreans have a similar positive view of magpies and Mongolians believed the birds controlled the weather.
Eurasian magpies are unfairly labelled as thieves. Find one of their nests, we have been told, and they will contain shiny trinkets such as rings and jewels. There's no credible evidence that this is so.
The myth of larcenous magpies has made it onto the stage. In 1815, a play appeared in France titled La Pie Voleuse. It told the story of a servant facing the guillotine accused of stealing silverware from her employer. She is saved by the revelation that the actual culprit was the master’s pet magpie.
Gioachino Rossini liked the story so much he turned it into an opera, La Gazza Ladra.
But now, scientists have lifted this dark stain from the reputations of magpies. They tempted the birds with piles of food. Beside these they placed shiny objects such as rings, pieces of foil, and screws. They repeated the set up only the shiny items were sprayed matte blue.
Only twice out of 64 tests did the birds go for a shiny bauble and even then they quickly discarded it. Stephen Lea of the University of Exeter, the study’s author, told the BBC “We can’t say that magpies never steal shiny objects [but] we currently have no reliable evidence that magpies, more than any other bird, are attracted to shiny objects more than any other object.”
Of course, magpies are highly intelligent and who is to say they didn’t figure out what the boffins in lab coats were up to and messed with their test results?
Clearly, Magpies Mourn the Loss of One of Their Number
The Songbird Allegation
It is widely and erroneously believed that magpies are killing off songbirds. Magpies are predators and they eat the eggs and chicks of song thrushes, robins, blackbirds, and the like. This is the way of things are in Nature red of tooth and claw.
University of Sheffield ecologist Tim Birkenhead has studied magpies for many years. He says there’s little evidence that magpie predation has any significant effect on overall songbird populations.
If you want to find the culprit for the decline in the number of songbirds you have to look no further than the family cat. Birkenhead says “Cats are undoubtedly a monumental threat to songbirds, but it’s magpies that incur the wrath of the average bird lover.”
Australia’s Swooping Magpies
And, magpies get falsely accused of another outrage.
In September 2015, a magpie attacked several children in East Gosford, Australia. The bird went for the children’s eyes and left them with some permanent damage. Two years later, a couple of kids were similarly attacked in Perth, Australia.
Attacks such as these happen thousands of times every southern hemisphere spring. The birds are telling people they are getting too close to their nests and, if they know what’s good for them, to back off.
However, magpies should not have to take the rap for this activity. When European settlers arrived in Australia they saw these medium-sized black and white birds and said “Look they’ve got magpies.” But, they weren’t magpies, they belong to their own genus.
However, despite the pesky swooping, the Aussies named their “magpies” the bird of the year in 2017.
- It was once thought that only humans could recognize themselves in a mirror. Then, it was discovered that some apes, Asian elephants, and bottlenose dolphins have that ability. Now, we can add magpies to the list of species that can recognize themselves in a mirror.
- The most commonly used collective noun for a group of magpies is “a parliament.”
- The magpie population in Britain has risen by 400 percent since the 1970s. One theory is that the increased amount of road kill caused by heavier traffic is providing a plentiful food supply for the birds.
- “Magpies and Superstition.” British Bird Lovers, undated.
- “Magpies - A Story of Seven.” Lynx, Druidry.org, undated.
- “Magpie Terror as Four Children Baby Viciously Attacked at East Gosford.” Geraldine Cardozo, Central Coast Gosford Express Advocate, September 17, 2015.
- “The Truth about Magpies.” Henry Nicholls, BBC Earth, April 8, 2015.
- “21 Facts about Magpies.” Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, undated.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor