The Devil's Bird?
Updated: Oct 20, 2020
A magpie was stood looking in at me through the window this morning. It seemed to be looking right into my eye. In Scotland, from where I have just returned (did it follow me?), this would be seen as a sign of impending death. And the ‘One for sorrow’ means that bad news, at least, had been heralded! Should I worry? Well, we have been living among very bad news for quite some time now, it is hard to see what worse this beautiful bird could herald. Plus, my belief is that it was just checking itself out in the reflection. Magpies recognise themselves in a mirror – when a red dot is drawn on a magpie, realising that the bird in the mirror is it, the magpie cleans the dot off with its beak. A blackbird can’t do this, nor a cat or dog for that matter. So, very smart magpies are. Plus, the ‘One for sorrow’ rhyme in an ABCB structure – what occurs is more about rhyming that what may actually happen, and anyway, there are huge regional variations in how this poem goes.
But most people do not like magpies! Why is this? I love them, myself – they steal my apples and plums but so do other birds. They pick the eyes out of carrion – so what, the dead animal doesn’t need them anymore, why let them go to waste? So why are they so persecuted by humans – we fear them, shun them, shoot them? It once was that magpies used to nest in gardens, but they had to move away from that due to human persecution. These days they mainly inhabit hedgerows – the ones that industrial farming hasn’t cut down.
Yes, they do a few bad things – they rob other bird’s nests, taking the eggs and young of partridge and pheasant (hence its unpopularity among gamekeepers), and songbirds too (hence they are chastised by your average bird fan). They seem a trifle arrogant – but, wow, who are we to judge? And lastly, they steal our shiny things!
Well, of the things of the above that are true, so what, other birds take eggs too. They eat carrion –we kill for food!
But most of the things are NOT true:
An RSPB study found that songbird numbers were no different in places where there were many magpies from where there are few. It found no evidence that increased numbers of magpies have caused declines in songbirds and confirms that populations of prey species are not determined by the numbers of their predators. The loss of food and habitats caused by intensive farming have been the major factors in this decline. The increase in the use of agricultural chemicals has reduced the number of insects and weed seeds available for songbirds to eat. The removal of hedgerows which are used for nesting, roosting and feeding sites by some birds, has been a major reason for the declines in farmland species.
Ecologist Tim Birkhead of the University of Sheffield studied magpies over a ten-year period and is clear that magpies don't steal. He found absolutely no evidence that people have ever found anything silver or shiny in a magpie's nest. They are simply very inquisitive birds and pick up all sorts of things to explore them.
As harbingers of ill
In most parts of the UK people will salute a single magpie and say something polite to it in the hope that it will not pass bad fortune on to you. In Europe many folk tales claim that magpies are witches in disguise. Perhaps the origin of their ungodliness come from the tale that on Noah’s ark, the dove and raven were sent out by Noah well before finding land, and thus were not baptised. Instead they mated and produced the magpie!
Are they really the devil’s bird? Let’s not be so silly! Next time you see a magpie, salute it because it is cool, not out of fear or superstition. And stop killing them, allow them to live in their natural habitat without the nonsense of persecution. Love a magpie!