In Britain there is probably no other wild bird that is associated with superstition as much as the magpie. Folklore has surrounded magpies in the UK and the rest of Europe for centuriess and Victorians were so fearful of magpies that they nearly hunted them to extinction.
However, before the spread of Christianity the magpie was an important symbolic bird often associated with good luck or fortune. The Romans, for example, believed that the magpie was highly intelligent with excellent reasoning, abilities which has been proven by today’s scientists, and in Ancient Greece magpies were sacred to Bacchus the god of wine.
Further afield some tribes of Native Americans believed that wearing a magpie feather was a sign of fearlessness, while others considered the magpie to be a sacred messenger of the creator, or even a guardian with shamanic properties.
But the Christian Church viewed the magpie very differently, insisting that it was the only bird not to weep or comfort Jesus during his crucifixion or go into a proper period of mourning because of its pied plumage. From this grew a number of superstations around magpies and the stories in the bible.
There is another unconvicted avian murderer — the cuckoo
In the 19th century a vicar reported one of his servants explaining that the magpie was the only bird not to enter Noah’s ark, preferring to sit outside chattering and swearing in the pouring rain. Another tale from the same era says that the magpie is a hybrid between the raven and the dove and therefore the only bird not to have been baptised.
It was also the Church that started the rumour that magpies carry a drop of the devil’s blood in their tongues. If you were to cut the tongue to release the blood then the magpie would be capable of human speech.
Rossini wrote a tragicomic opera entitled La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie) about a French girl accused of theft who is tried, convicted, and executed. Later the true culprit is revealed to be a magpie and in remorse the town organises an annual ‘Mass Of The Magpies’ to pray for the girl’s soul.
Without a proper understanding of how the world worked our ancestors would try and explain mysterious events by linking them to supernatural causes.
Over time, the notion that magpies were bad birds morphed into the idea that magpies will bring bad luck. However, as the well-known rhyme shows, it is only seeing a lone magpie that is supposed to bring bad luck. Two bring joy. We’re not entirely sure why this is but we do know that magpies often mate for life so seeing a single magpie may mean it has lost its mate and therefore the chance of it bringing bad luck is higher. Indeed, according to the rhyme coming across a larger group of magpies could actually bring you good fortune and wealth.
As a result the magpie has suffered what might be described as ‘bad press’ in the same way that small money spiders enjoy goood ‘press’ while their larger bathroon cousins almost invariably suffer the opposite. But why did the magpie get such a bad rap and how did these superstitions come about?
Without a proper understanding of how the world worked our ancestors would try and explain mysterious events by linking them to supernatural causes. Often this meant they linked the appearance of an animal or a natural phenomenon such as a change in weather with an event that occurred soon after that could not be otherwise explained. This rudimentary way of explaining the world gave rise to many of the superstitions that people still believe in or at least acknowledge today.
Death, in particular, could be very difficult to predict or explain and people quite rightfully were fearful of death and the unknown. It’s why so many superstitions and old wives’ tales arose around this morbid subject.
There is, of course, another unconvicted avian murderer - the cuckoo. “Sumer is icumen in, Lhude sing cuccu!” was written in the 13th century as the harbinger of the warmer season. It is sung with joy and yet the bird is a killer, turfing out the nestlings of small songbirds to accomodate its increasing size. Records of “the first cuckoo in Spring” have been kept for centuries as hope for a future those unfortunate nestlings will never see.
The fear that a lone magpie will bring bad luck is fairly common throughout the UK, but in some areas there are more specific magpie superstitions. In Scotland, a single magpie seen near the window of a house is a sign of an impending death while, in Wales, if you see a magpie moving from right to left when starting a journey, that journey will be hazardous. In Ireland, the birds are the souls of evil-minded and gossiping women. There are as many county magpie legends as there are counties.
Agriculture has done more harm to ground-nesting birds such as the lapwing, grey partridge, linnet and corn bunting than any mob of magpies
Whether the magpie’s predatory instinct is actually having adverse effects on songbird populations is doubtful. Indeed, the real reasons for the declines of songbirds in Britain are many and varied.
“Take the example of skylarks, a ground-nesting bird that could potentially be vulnerable to magpie predation,” says Farrar of the RSPB. “The reason for decline of skylarks is the switch from spring-sown to winter-sown cereals, the crop is too high for the birds to nest in. So they don’t produce enough young, so their population falls. The solution is measures to introduce spaces within the crop where the birds could find food.”
In fact, since the second world war, the way that 70% of Britain’s land surface is managed has changed, erasing habitats and meaning that many native birds have found it difficult to cope.
Death and thievery
Like other corvids magpies have long been associated with death. In medieval times they would have been found scavenging near battlegrounds, field hospitals, and the gallows in search of carrion. During breeding season, they will supplement their diet of grubs and berries with the eggs and chicks of other birds, including pheasants, which meant gamekeepers and other country folk wouldn’t have been too fond of them.
Magpies are also known for their inquisitive and mischievous nature which meant they earned a somewhat unfair reputation as thieves with a particular liking for jewellery and other shiny objects. If a precious ring went missing it was easy to blame it on a magpie. Recent research has suggested the very opposite in that it appears that most magpies are wary of glittery objects.
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, hence the piebald pony. In fact the magpie does contain a mixture of colours because the ‘black’ parts of its plumage, particularly its tail, are iridescent.
To help ward off the bad luck that might come your way from seeing a solitary magpie there are a number of things you can do:
Salute the magpie. Say ‘Good morning, general’ or ‘Good morning captain’. Say ‘Good morning Mr Magpie, how is your lady wife today? ’Say ‘Good morning, Mr Magpie, how are Mrs Magpie and all the other little magpies?’ Say ‘Hello Jack, how’s your brother?”
You could doff your hat. spit three times over your shoulder, blink rapidly to fool yourself into thinking you’ve seen two magpies or flap your arms like wings and caw loudly to mimic the magpie’s missing mate.
For all our cultivated superiority, we are a superstitious species.