The magpie (Pica pica) is a black-and-white bird with a very long tail. It is a member of the crow family. When the wings are folded, the magpie has a white breast and a white patch in each side. In flight the bird is more spectacular, with white body and white wing tips and the long tail spreads out into a huge fan. On close inspection, the black on the wings has a blue sheen while the tail has a green sheen. Males and females have identical plumage, but young magpies have many black feathers mixed in the white, giving them a scruffy look.
Like all crows, the magpie does not have a musical voice. Its cry is an irritating 'Ack-ack-ack-ack' which has been likened to a football rattle. A fully-grown magpie is typically 18 inches long, including the tail. Magpies can be found in north-western Africa, Europe, Asia and North America.
Who's a Clever Bird?
Magpies are intelligent creatures. They have been known to unlock pet rabbits' cages to steal the food! They can be taught to say words in the manner of a parrot. The writer and animal collector Gerald Durrell had two which used to delight in mimicking his mother, calling the dogs in her voice, to their great confusion. Magpies are sociable birds and will work together. Four of them will terrorise a cat. They have even been seen to fly down and lift to safety an injured magpie which had been hit by a car and was lying in the road.
Magpies, like all crows, have a reputation for liking shiny objects, and will reputedly steal jewellery, earning them the name 'The Thieving Magpie'. Rossini wrote a tragicomic opera of this name (La Gazza Ladra). It concerns a French servant-girl who is accused of theft. She is tried, found guilty and executed. Later, the true culprit is revealed: a magpie. In remorse, the town organises an annual 'Mass of the Magpies' to pray for her soul. The title The Thieving Magpie was later used by progressive rock band Marillion for one of their albums.
Magpies live on insects, grubs, berries and carrion, with occasional frogs and snails. They have also been known to kill small pets such as baby guinea pigs. Magpies supplement their diet in the breeding season by raiding nests of smaller birds and eating the eggs and chicks. This practice makes them much disliked by humans, particularly British gamekeepers. They are considered to be evil birds by people who insist on attaching human standards to nature. Studies show, however, that nature is able to cope and songbird and gamebird populations do not suffer as a result of occasional raids by the magpies.
One for Sorrow
Count the magpies to tell the future:
One for sorrow
Two for joy
Three for a girl
Four for a boy
Five for silver
Six for gold
Seven for a secret
Never to be told
There are many different versions of this rhyme, some of them going as high as 20 magpies. In North America, where magpies are not as common, the counting rhyme is also used for crows. One thing all the rhymes seem to agree on, though, is that one magpie on its own is a sign of bad luck. There is no known reason for this superstition, but it is very common. There are various things you can do if you meet a single magpie in order to ward off the bad luck. These include taking your hat off and making the sign of the cross, spitting three times over your shoulder, and saluting the magpie with 'Hello Mr Magpie, How's your lady wife today?'.
Two for Joy
Like many other birds, magpies mate for life. The pair will stick together and where you see one, you'll nearly always see the other nearby. Genetic studies, however, show that females are not averse to a little bit of spice in the herb garden with the result that about one in 15 baby magpies is not the child of the male of the pair. Gangs of magpies in breeding season often consist of a happy couple along with a lot of hopeful single males.
Magpies build strange nests of twigs with a domed roof on them to protect them from predators. The female incubates the green speckled eggs, but both parents provide food for the chicks, who remain in the nest for about a month.
For the rest of the year, magpies tend to hang around in large groups, sometimes as many as 100. These appear to be extended families living together and helping each other.
Origin of the Name
The word 'magpie' comes from 'Margaret Pie'. Mag is a shortened form of the name Margaret. Pie comes from the Latin name for the bird, pica. The words 'piebald' and 'pied' (meaning of two colours, especially black and white) both come from the word 'magpie'.
The name is also used for some other related species of long-tailed birds; Blue and Green magpies of Asia: Cyanopica, Cissa and Urocissa. The Australian Bell-magpies (Gymnorhina), are unrelated, being called magpies because of their black and white plumage. They are, however, short-tailed and sing with a musical voice.