Magpie misnomer is unravelled

Nature Notes with South Holderness Countryside Society


I CAN’T REMEMBER when it first started, but since I was young I would count magpies and say the little rhyme that I probably heard from the TV show Magpie. ‘One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl and four for a boy.’ Even now I can hear the tune as they sing out ‘Ma..aa.. aa.agpiiiiiie’ as the chorus. When I met my first husband he would salute whenever he saw the bird, and say ‘Morning Cap’n,’ to ward off bad luck. Elderly grandmothers have been heard to call out to a single magpie and ask, ‘Hello, Jack – how’s your brother?’ or ‘Hello, Mr Magpie – how’s your wife today?’ But why? How can saluting a bird, or showing it respect in this way, possibly negate any misfortune coming your way, or maybe the opposite and bring good fortune? John Brand, from Lincolnshire, wrote one of the earlier recorded versions of the song around 1780. ‘One for sorrow, two for mirth, three for a funeral, and four for a birth’. By 1846 a slightly different version had appeared in a book of ‘Proverbs and Popular Sayings,’ ‘One for sorrow, two for mirth, three for a wedding and four for a death’. Different areas of the country had contradicting views of the numbers of the bird that were considered to be either lucky or unlucky. Some rhymes stopped at seven birds, others went as high as 13, to count as many as possible in the parliament, or gathering of magpies. In countries where magpies are not so common, for example America, the song is used to count birds such as the jackdaw, raven or crow. These beautiful, intelligent, birds have for many hundreds of years been involved in old wives’ tales and superstitions. Early Christians saw the magpie as being vain and rakish as it was not dressed in pure black to mourn the death of Christ. In Scotland the bird was considered to be that evil, that it carried a drop
 of the Devil’s blood under its tongue. Evil nuns were believed to be reincarnated as magpies in France. The only possible reason behind these beliefs could be the fact that magpies are famed for predating smaller bird’s eggs or chicks (or jewellery) although it is believed that they actually have very little impact on the songbird population. The magpie was popular
with farmers until the mid-19th century, due to its instinct to catch insects and rodents. As game rearing became more popular the magpie became despised by game keepers, as the bird would also predate pheasant’s nests. Hundreds of magpies were killed by every gamekeeper and their numbers drastically reduced. It has only been since the Second World War that their numbers have started to recover and they are now considered to be steady after quadrupling over the last 35 years. Despite its reputation for killing and eating chicks, the magpie is actually largely vegetarian during the winter months, and in the summer hunts invertebrates. The spring months, when rearing its own chicks, is the time the magpie will predate other bird’s nests, although carrion from roadkill also provides an all year-round buffet. This large looking bird is actually only around half the weight of a wood pigeon, with the magpie’s tail actually making up half of the bird’s length. They are non-migratory and rarely travel more than 10km from where they hatch, with pairs usually staying in their territory, and non-breeding birds making up small gangs. A male magpie will chance a flirt with a female bird, or even a decoy, if its mate is not present; however, if she is around, they will stand together and face the visitor female with aggression. Sounds a bit like a Hull nightclub from the 80s!