“One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl and four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold and seven for a secret never to be told, eight for a wish, nine for a kiss, ten for a bird that’s best to miss.”“
I will bet that virtually everyone at sometime in their lives have recited or thought of the above in one form or another after seeing a single magpie or a group of magpies. The ‘thieving’ magpie probably ranks amongst the most loathed birds of the avian world and accordingly has an abundance of superstition attached to it. Once upon a time when Noah built his ark the magpie was the only creature who refused to take sanctuary inside it. Instead it remained perched outside chattering and laughing at the world as it was destroyed by the deluge. Ever since that day the bird’s reputation has been one of hatred and suspicion. Or alternatively the magpie was the only bird not to sing as Christ died on the cross and ever since then has been labelled as being evil and disrespectful. In all reality it’s probably the case that as they are known to steal other birds eggs and baby chicks as part of their diet they have gained the reputation of being destructive and loathsome.
With regards to the ‘thieving’ name this stems from the misconception that magpies have a natural attraction to shiny objects which in some cases could be expensive items of jewellery. Therefore when such things went missing, or somebody saw a magpie picking up such an item it was assumed that it was stealing it to take back to its nest. However, in 2014 a study by Exeter University in which a group of magpies were exposed to both a collection of shiny metal screws, small shiny foil rings and squares of aluminium foil along with the same objects but which had been painted a dull matt blue paint. Then two piles of nuts were placed, each with both shiny and non-shiny objects 30 cm away from them. Out of 64 tests the birds only picked up two of the shiny rings which they promptly put down again. In virtually all the other cases both types of objects were ignored or avoided and the magpies displayed distinct signs of nervous feeding behaviour. So the conclusion was that magpies do not have an attraction to shiny objects and in fact with all the objects the birds displayed clear signs of ‘neophobia’ which is a fear of new things.
In Devonshire the magpie has been known as the ‘Mock-a-Pie or Piannet and can be seen as a single bird, a pair or in some cases a whole flock of them. These large groups are a result of them being social birds who will congregate in order to assert territorial rights or to establish social hierarchies. This being the very reason why such a gathering is sometimes known as a ‘parliament‘ of magpies, another collective term being a ‘tiding‘ of magpies.
“Good morning Mr. Magpie, how is your lady wife today?“
A fairly universal belief is that there is always the possibility of misfortune when sighting a single magpie unless some form of salutation is given. On Dartmoor it is said that to avert any bad luck one must spit three times over the right shoulder and recite the following; “Clean birds by sevens, Unclean by twos; The dove in the heavens, Is the one I choose.” This is probably associated with the belief that the magpie refused to go into the ark but the dove brought back the olive branch.
But why should a single magpie be a harbinger of doom as opposed to several magpies and why is it always thought to be a male? Firstly it can be hard if not impossible to distinguish between a male and a female magpie especially from a distance, if anything the male is slightly larger. This means unless you see a pair it’s hard to compare sizes so in all reality a single bird may be male or female. There was the thought that when a witch died she took on the form of a magpie which could be one reason why there is so much superstition attached to single birds. Another reason could relate to the association between magpies and the Devil, there was a belief that the bird had drunk of drop of Satan’s blood and therefore best avoided. Whilst on the supernatural subject some folk would hang a dead magpie over the doors to their houses in the belief it kept ghosts away. One true fact is that you could/can sometimes see dead magpies hanging from a gamekeeper’s ‘gibbet’ in an attempt to keep other magpies away from their game stocks and the possibility of losing eggs and young chicks.
Depending on who one consults magpies can be portents of either good luck or misfortune, here are some local Dartmoor and Devonshire superstitions regarding these birds
It’s bad luck to shoot a magpie.
It’s bad luck to see a single magpie flying during the Spring months as it signifies cold adverse weather conditions.
If a fisherman sees a magpie first thing in the morning then all the fish will get of the hook for the rest of the day.
It’s awful bad luck to have a magpie hover over one’s head as it portends imminent death.
To have a magpie perch for a long time on your roof signifies a death in the family.
To see four magpies together signals imminent death.
It’s bad luck to see a magpie in a field.
It’s good luck if a magpies jumps into the path of a traveller.
If you see three magpies on the way to a wedding then that foretells of a happy future for the couple who are getting married.
In a way it was good luck to eat a magpie if you suffered from epilepsy as it was supposed to be a cure.
As you can see there is more local bad luck associated with magpies than good luck which as noted above is more due to the various misconceptions than reality. However, it still does not stop the feeling of hatred some folk get when hearing the chattering of the bird.
Compared to other birds the nest of a magpie could be regarded as a slum dwelling as it looks as if it’s been thrown together and never finished. The reason for this can be found down in the deep, dark annals of time. At the dawn of creation the magpie realised that in comparison with other birds their nest building skills were distinctly lacking so she gathered them all together to ask their advice. Having collected all the necessary materials for nest building she first asked the blackbird what she should do. It replied; “put that straight stick there,” and pointed to a branch. “Ah,” said the magpie, “Ah, I knewed that afore.” Then bird by bird they all gave their recommendations for nest building to which each one had the same reply; “Ah, I knewed that afore.” As the nest slowly grew in size the patience of the magpie’s tutors began to wane until in the end they all threw up their wings in exasperation. It was the agreed enough was enough and the blackbird spoke for them all; “Well Mistress Mag, as you appear to know everything about nest building you ken finish the nest by yerself.” With that the assembly flew away leaving the magpie with a half finished nest and no idea how to complete it. That is why to this very day magpies can never built a tidy nest.
So maybe next time you see a magpie or group of magpies you might be brave enough not to count them, spit, salute or make any other form of acknowledgement – after all they’re only magpies?