Image by Natural England, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Friends volunteer, popular guide and bird expert Trevor Gunton introduces the next in this series of informative articles.
Latin name – pica pica
This is the most interesting, and at the same time the most controversial, British bird that I have yet covered in this “Finding Out” series on our native birds.
The beautiful magpie is woven into our culture and folklore going back almost a thousand years, and this link with we humans has continued up to recent times through the ITV children’s programme “Magpie”. I wonder just how many viewers actually knew that it was a British bird – few had, I suspect, ever seen one!
Magpies had been cast as folk villains since they had supposedly refused to enter Noah’s Ark in the well-known Biblical story, whilst here in the UK, a single bird was supposed to bring bad luck, but two brought good luck and three meant a wedding and so on. There are many English regional variations, especially of course from Lancashire and Yorkshire, where in God’s own county the country schoolboys used to sing “Eight you live, nine you die and ten you eat a bogey pie”! Maybe they still do, even to this day?
In rural areas, you should spit three times if you see a magpie, then make the sign of a cross. In Scotland, an ancient belief is that magpies have a spot of Satan’s blood under their tongues. These stories may not be totally true, but maybe they give us some clues as to why the magpie is hated by some people and is blamed for creating genocide amongst our garden birds. This view is strongly rejected by the BTO, RSPB and Tim Birkhead, who wrote the standard work “The Magpies” in 1991.
So, let’s get down to some hard facts.
Firstly, our magpie is a member of the Corvid family, which in the UK includes the Raven (the world’s largest perching bird), the Rook, the Rackdaw and the Carrion and Hooded Crows. This is a very successful family and, despite persecution by man, it has spread in various forms throughout most of the world.
Our bird can be found across Europe, into the Far East and south to the Yemen in Arabia. Here in the UK, it is not found on the Northern or Western islands and generally it is more numerous in the Midlands and West. Here it is sedentary, with about 600,000 birds. What about Paxton? This is difficult to estimate, but approximately 15 pairs on the reserve and in the village would not be far out. Interestingly, some people in Little Paxton see magpies each day, whilst other people tell me that they never see one!
Magpies are well-known for making large dome-shaped nests not unlike grey squirrels’ drays. Birds stay together throughout the year and nest repairs or construction may start as early as January, depending upon weather conditions. Eggs are normally laid from early March.
What is not fully understood, is just what they get up to outside the breeding season. In the past, I have records of up to 15 going to roost on the reserve, but elsewhere the record number of magpies roosting together is no fewer than 150! What an amazing sight that must have been! The reasons for communal roosting are not fully understood. Reasons given include protection from predation, warmth and being able to share information about the best feeding locations. Birds are known to travel up to 10 miles to join these large communal roosts – very clever birds, are magpies. So sharing information in some way may be possible?
So, love them or hate them, they are here to stay and remain very much part of the village bird population. On my local walks they can often be heard chattering away to each other from the rooftops. Don’t worry – they are not likely to steal jewellery or be especially attracted to bright objects!
In China, the magpie is regarded as “The Herald of Happiness” and was, in Roman times, sacred to Bacchus, the god of wine.
So, the next time you see a magpie during one of your walks, raise your hat and say “Good morning Mr Magpie, and how is your wife today?” Good luck will follow you for the rest of the day – hopefully!
Main reference – “The Magpies” by Tim Birkhead (Poyser 1919) A really outstanding book