Thieving little magpie?

There are many superstitions surrounding magpies

It may seem a bit daft, but despite being brought up a Catholic and educated in faith schools, I still feel compelled to acknowledge some of the old pagan superstitions that have been passed down through time.

For example, if I am on the road, or out for a walk and I spot a lone magpie, I always have to look for its mate as the lines of the well-known rhyme trot naturally into my head, ‘One for sorrow, two for joy…’ Seeing one by itself is meant to be bad luck, so I can’t stop myself from casting my eyes around in the hope of spotting at least one more magpie to raise my chances of encountering ‘joy’ in the near future.

If I don’t see a second one immediately, I will continue keeping an eye out for the duration of my journey in the hope of seeing one at some point. It makes no sense that a rational person like me, who was brought up to believe in God, but who now harbours my own unique brand of belief in something (although I’m not really sure what) should still hang on to a superstition that has no place in either Christian belief, nor in my current ‘something but not sure what’ kind of spirituality.

But we humans can be complex and contradictory in our ways, can’t we. I have seen lone magpies many a time, and yet I can’t recall any kind of ‘sorrow’ befalling me soon afterwards. There are many variations of the rhyme, and in Scottish folklore, a lone magpie is meant to bring joy, not sorrow. In other versions, three magpies mean that a marriage is pending, whereas elsewhere it is seeing four that relates to forthcoming nuptials. They can’t all be right!

A friend of mine, who is of Irish Catholic descent but was brought up in Wales and South Yorkshire, salutes a magpie if she sees one, and also says: “Hello Mr Magpie. How is Mrs Magpie and all the little magpies?” And, like me, she will always look to find a partner. She says that as long as you salute him and see a second one at any point during the same journey, then it neutralises any bad luck.

We are not sure where these superstitions come from, as my dad explains in his column from 2nd February 1980, but farmers would pay great heed to them, as a lone magpie did mean bad luck for them, in as much as they were notorious for stealing eggs and attacking young game birds and farmyard poultry.

And as we all know, they also have a reputation for stealing shiny objects which they supposedly take back to their nests. This reputation has continued for many centuries through folklore, and yet we don’t really know why or where it came from. Italian composer Gioachino Rossini was inspired to pen his opera La Gazza Ladra in 1817 by a French play that told the story of a servant girl who was sentenced to die by guillotine, only to be saved at the last minute when it was found to be her master’s pet magpie that had been nicking the silverware, not her.

It seems this reputation for kleptomania is undeserved, and there have only been two reported cases in recent years of shiny objects being discovered in magpie nests. A study conducted in 2014 at the University of Exeter concluded that a more likely explanation is that we take particular notice of magpies when they do pick shiny things, which they often discard soon afterwards, but we perhaps take less notice when they collect average, non-shiny bits and pieces like twigs and insects, which is the bulk of what they like to take back to their nests. In fact, in that study, piles of tempting shiny bolts, keys and ring-pulls were actively avoided.

Magpies are highly intelligent, quick to learn and easy to tame and in the 1800s, when the original French play was written, they were commonly kept as household pets. Because they are highly inquisitive in nature, they would pick up any trinkets that took their fancy, and in a domestic setting, many of these would naturally be shiny. It is this habit that is believed to have inspired the original play, and the popularity of Rossini’s opera ensured the magpie’s reputation for thievery became enshrined in history for ever.

Read more at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 31st Jan and the Gazette & Herald on 29th Jan 2020

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