Theme: Magpie Folklore
The Black-billed magpie is a large songbird, a member of the Crow family.
American is called Pica hudsonia to distinguish it from California’s yellow billed magpie, Pica nuttala. The European magpie is almost the same, called Pica pica, and a Korean subspecies is Pica pica sericea.
Range & characteristics
Pica hudsonia is common in much of western and central North America, including coasts in Alaska, to OK & occasl. E. coast.
Bold black & white plumage:
white belly and primaries (wing tips), black head, breast, & long black tail.
Distinctive swooping flight pattern (“rowing.”)
Thick bill, strong legs, loud voice; noisy and aggressive.
Social; travels in groups; known to mob predators such as hawks and owls.
Omnivorous: eats insects, fruit, carrion, nuts, seeds.
Can be pests, eating pet food and fruit. Just being in your yard can scare them, and scarecrows have been suggested to keep them away.
Also kept as pets!
I’m going to talk about the superstitions surrounding magpies.
There are nursery rhymes and well known sayings or proverbs dealing with magpies.
I will now steal from Wikipedia, on folklore about European magpies, and other websites.
• In Britain and Ireland, there are a number of superstitions regarding magpies.
• A single magpie is associated with bad luck (see rhymes below)
• One should make sure to greet magpies when they are encountered in order to either allay bad luck or encourage good luck as related to the number of birds and therefore their place in the Magpie poem. Common greetings include "Hello Mr Magpie" "How is your wife/where is your wife?", "Good Morning/Evening Sir" and other marks of respect.
• Upon seeing a lone magpie one should repeat the words "I defy thee" seven times.
• On seeing a lone magpie one should pinch the person they are walking with, if they are alone they are to pinch themselves. The custom in Devon is to spit three times to avert ill luck.
• If a lone Magpie is seen, one should salute it to show you respect it. This formality can be forgone if the Magpie looks directly in your eyes, which shows it respects you.
• In the 19th century book, A Guide to the Scientific Knowledge of Things Familiar, a proverb concerning magpies is recited: "A single magpie in spring, foul weather will bring". The book further explains that this superstition arises from the habits of pairs of magpies to forage together only when the weather is fine.
• An old English folk tale states that when Jesus was crucified on the cross, all of the world's birds wept and sang to comfort him in his agony. The only exception was the magpie, and for this, it is forever cursed.
• In Scotland, a Magpie near the window of the house foretells death.
• In Scottish folklore, in a story possibly related to the above, magpies were long reviled for allegedly carrying a drop of Satan's blood under their tongues.
A hopscotch game with the Magpie rhyme. (there is a picture of engraved stones).
• In Norway, a magpie is considered cunning and thievish, sometimes wicked, but a playful and loud bird is also bringer of good weather.
• In both Italian and French folklore, magpies' penchant for picking up shiny items is thought to be particularly directed towards precious ones. Rossini's opera La gazza ladra and the The Adventures of Tintin comic Les Bijoux de la Castafiore are based on this theme.
• In Bulgarian, German and Swedish folklore the magpie is also seen as a thief. In Sweden it is further associated with witchcraft.
• In the Middle Ages and during the witch-hunts in Europe, the bird was considered to be connected with witchcraft, just like crows, ravens and black cats.
• In Korea, it is believed that a guest will arrive when the cry of a magpie is heard.
• In China, instead of being a sign of misfortune, the magpie is one of the most popular birds, and is seen as the messenger of good news and fortune. In fact, its name in Chinese literally means "bird of joy" (喜鹊). Magpies commonly feature in Chinese folktales, the best-known of which is "The Story of Cowherd and Weaver Girl", where they form a bridge for the separated lovers every year on the day of Qixi. (In 2010 it is August sixteenth). (sort of like V day but not really.)
In late summer, the stars Altair and Vega are high in the night sky, and the Chinese tell the following love story, of which there are many variations:
A young cowherd named Niulang (Chinese: 牛郎; pinyin: niú láng; literally "[the] cowherd"), came across seven fairy sisters bathing in a lake. Encouraged by his mischievous companion the ox, he stole their clothes and waited to see what would happen. The fairy sisters elected the youngest and most beautiful sister Zhinü (simplified Chinese: 织女; traditional Chinese: 織女; pinyin: zhī nǚ; literally "[the] weaver girl", the star Vega) to retrieve their clothing. She agreed to do so, but since Niulang had seen her naked, she agreed to his request for marriage. She proved to be a wonderful wife, and Niulang to be a good husband. They lived happily and had two children. But the Goddess of Heaven (or in some versions, Zhinü's mother) found out that Zhinü, a fairy girl, had married a mere mortal. The Goddess was furious and ordered Zhinü to return to heaven. (Alternatively, the Goddess forced the fairy back to her former duty of weaving colorful clouds, a task she neglected while living on earth with a mortal.) On Earth, Niulang was very upset that his wife had disappeared. Suddenly, his ox began to talk, telling him that if he killed it and put on its hide, he would be able to go up to Heaven to find his wife. Crying bitterly, he killed the ox, put on the skin, and carried his two beloved children off to Heaven to find Zhinü. The Goddess discovered this and was very angry. Taking out her hairpin, the Goddess scratched a wide river in the sky to separate the two lovers forever, thus forming the Milky Way between Altair and Vega.
Zhinü must sit forever on one side of the river, sadly weaving on her loom, while Niulang watches her from afar and takes care of their two children (his flanking stars β and γ Aquilae or by their Chinese names Hè Gu 1 and Hè Gu 3).
But once a year all the magpies in the world would take pity on them and fly up into heaven to form a bridge (鵲橋, "the bridge of magpies", Que Qiao) over the star Deneb in the Cygnus constellation so the lovers may be together for a single night, which is the seventh night of the seventh moon.
The Magpie rhyme
In Britain and Ireland a widespread traditional rhyme records the myth (it is not clear whether it has been seriously believed) that seeing magpies predicts the future, depending on how many are seen. There are many regional variations on the rhyme, which means that it is impossible to give a definitive version.
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.
In Ireland, it is common to recite "Five for a wedding". (This particular version is used in the Counting Crows song "A Murder of One.")
One for sorrow
Two for mirth
Three for a funeral
Four for a birth
Five for heaven
Six for hell
Seven's the Devil his own self
(the last line may be split and abbreviated as Seven's the De'il / his ane sel'), which rhymes.(Both versions above feature prominently in Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel Carpe Jugulum.)
Sometimes (but rarely), three extra lines are added:
Eight for a wish
Nine for a kiss
Ten for a bird that you won't want to miss.
Eight for a wish
Nine for a kiss
Ten for a time of Joyous Bliss
as the former is believed to have been written especially for the television show's credits.
In Yorkshire the Magpie Rhyme is as follows:
One for Sorrow
Two for Joy
Three for a Girl
Four for a Boy
Five for Silver
Six for Gold
Seven for a tale never to be told
Eight you Live
Nine you Die
Ten you eat a bogey pie!
In Warwickshire the rhyme is:
One brings Sorrow
Two bring Joy
Three a Girl
And Four a Boy
Five bring Want
And Six bring Gold
Seven bring secrets never told
Eight bring wishing
Nine bring kissing
Ten, the love my own heart's missing!
The version proposed by Maddy Prior in the popular folk song 'Magpie' is as follows;
One for Sorrow
Two for Joy
Three for a Wedding
Four for a Boy
Five for a Fiddler
Six for a Dance
Seven for Old England
and Eight for France
Version F (Manchester)
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, Eight for a wish, Nine for a kiss, Ten a surprise you should be careful not to miss, Eleven for health, Twelve for wealth, Thirteen beware it's the devil himself.
Sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye,
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened the birds began to sing,
Oh wasn't that a dainty dish to set before the king?
The king was in his counting house counting out his money,
The queen was in the parlour eating bread and honey
The maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes,
When down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose!
Interpretation of nursery rhyme:
The rye ( a pocketful of rye) was purchased to feed birds. Blackbirds, and other song birds, were actually eaten as a delicacy! However a court jester may well have suggested to the court cook to bake a pie pastry crust and place this over some live blackbirds to surprise and amuse the King! It would not be unreasonable for the blackbirds to look for revenge hence "When down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose!" It is interesting to note that the references to the counting house and eating honey were the common man's perception of what a King and Queen spent their time doing. The nursery rhyme Sing a song of sixpence or blackbirds baked in a pie always end with the tweaking of a child's nose!
Film and television
A British children's TV show called Magpie featured a theme song based on the "one for sorrow" rhyme, and featured a large cartoon Magpie as its mascot or logo. A magpie named Snipes with a snobbish disposition is a main character in the film Rock-A-Doodle. Heckle and Jeckle, two magpies created by the Terrytoons cartoon studio, were popular on screen and in comic books. One had an English accent, the other a Brooklyn accent. Two magpies resembling the cartoon birds are featured in Windex commercials on TV.
La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) is an opera in two acts by Gioachino Rossini. The very distinct overture is well known. There are many other songs about magpies; they and their thieving and general mischieviousness are popular subjects.
Two English football clubs, Notts County and Newcastle United are nicknamed "The Magpies" due to their black and white striped playing kits. Notts County's club crest depicts a football on which perch two magpies. Thieving Magpie, named for the Thieving Magpie Overture is a popular card in the trading card game Magic: the Gathering. In target shooting the score for a shot striking the outermost division but one is called a "magpie" because it was signalled by a black and white flag.
Bishops were formerly called "magpies" in humour or derision because of their black and white vestments. “Lawyers as vultures, had soared up and down; / Prelates, like Magpies, in the Air had flown.”--Howell's Letters: Lines to the knowing reader.
Magpies in American Natural History
When Lewis and Clark first encountered magpies in 1804 in South Dakota, they reported the birds as being very bold, entering tents or taking food from the hand. Today black-billed magpies remain relatively tame in areas where they are not persecuted. But they become very wary in areas where they are often shot at or disturbed. Especially during the first half of the 20th century, black-billed magpies were considered detrimental to game-bird populations (they sometimes steal bird eggs) and domestic stock (they may sometimes peck at sores on cattle), and were systematically trapped or shot. Bounties of one cent per egg or two cents per head were offered in many states. In Idaho the death toll eventually amounted to an estimated 150,000. In 1933, 1,033 magpies were shot in Washington’s Okanogan valley by two teams of bounty hunters. Many magpies also died from eating poison set out for coyotes and other predators.
If regularly disturbed at the nest, magpie pairs will eventually either move the eggs or abandon the clutch altogether. But in the first instance they will defend the nest aggressively. Interestingly, biologists who have climbed nest trees to measure magpie eggs have reported that the parents recognized them on subsequent days and started to mob them.
(Mobbing is antipredator behavior, a cooperation among members on one species, usually meant to preserve nests or offspring.)
Biologists study mobbing magpies in this article:
“Predators, risks and context for mobbing and alarm calls in black-billed magpies” by Eric Stone and Charles H. Trost, Department of Biological Sciences, Idaho State University, accepted 5 September 1990.
Black-billed magpie, Pica pica hudsonia, mobbing and alarm calls were recorded for each of several different predator contexts. These were analysed spectrographically to determine whether the callers used temporal variation to communicate (1) the nature of the danger, (2) the identity of the predator and (3) the risks involved in actions resulting from alertness to the presence of the predator (e.g. fleeing or mobbing). The results support the notion that magpies vary call syllable length to give recipients information about the nature of the danger and to respond to a predator in an appropriate manner. Playback experiments were conducted using recordings of the separate call types as stimuli. The aim of the playback experiments was to determine whether one form of call elicits a more intense reaction from recipients than another call. It was found that magpies responded to calls with longer syllables by approaching the speaker while their response to calls with shorter syllables was aversive.
Volume 41, Issue 4, April 1991, Pages 633-638
Biologists believe the corvid family to be among the smartest of all birds. Magpies will flip items over to look for food, follow predators to pick at leftovers, and sometimes steal food from other birds. In captivity a magpie may be trained to imitate the human voice. These birds frequently associate with deer, moose, cattle and sheep, perching on their backs and picking off ticks and maggots. They can even use scent to find food--an unusual trait for birds, which generally have very little sense of smell.
Magpies are omnivorous, feeding on insects, rodents, eggs and bird young, reptiles, snakes, carrion, seeds, nuts, fruits and berries. Magpies will also cache food when they find more than they can eat at one sitting. In this way they are able to take advantage of storing food away for times when it is more scarce.
Magpies are not swift fliers. They elude predators and danger by flitting in and out of trees or diving into heavy cover. Enemies of the magpie are hawks and large owls.
Usually seen in small flocks of 6-10 birds; larger flocks may form in winter, sometimes numbering over 700 birds. Black-billed Magpies are monogamous and form long-term pair bonds.
Magpies are protected as migratory non-game birds under the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Under the Federal Codes of Regulation (CFR 50, 21.43) it is stated, however, that “a Federal permit shall not be required to control . . . magpies, when found committing or about to commit depredations upon ornamental or shade trees, agricultural crops, livestock, or wildlife, or when concentrated in such numbers as to constitute a health hazard or other nuisance. . . .” Most state or local regulations are similar, but consult authorities before taking any magpies.