The magpie is a common enough sight at the moment, and you’ll probably be able to recall a rhyme regarding groups of these monochrome birds:
One for sorrow
Two for joy
Three for a girl
Four for a boy
Five for young
Six for old
Seven for a secret never to be told
The magpie rhyme has several variations, which version did you learn? I can remember learning this one at school in rural Yorkshire, but I know there are others!
The majority of folklore revolves around the seeing of a single bird, through the British Isles it is generally considered unlucky to view a single magpie, and so steps are taken to ward off such bad luck. In Scotland and Northern Ireland one should salute – and preferably greet the bird or ask after the health of the absent Mrs Magpie, whilst in the majority of England one should wave or doff ones hat (or hoody presumably?…) This is supposed to make the assumption that there are in fact two birds, and thus ward off the bad luck (one for sorrow) and change it into good (two for joy). The assumption seems to be that a lone bird will always be referred to as ‘Mister’, so through this I will refer to a single bird as a male (though I know it’s not forced to be!). In Scotland the sighting of a lone bird near a house window signals an impending death, as the belief is that the bird carries a drop of the devils blood under their tounge. Superstitions in Yorkshire and Sweden suggest a connection with witchcraft and an especially ill omen. From the remoter parts of Yorkshire comes the remedy of flapping your arms as wings and vocally imitating the birds missing partner to avert disaster (though I never have seen anyone actually do it…) . In Devon the tradition is to spit three times to avert bad luck. In German, Italian, French and Norwegian folklore the magpies are often depicted as thieves, in Norway however, they are also considered playful and a bringer of good weather. There are a great deal of folk tales connected with it, such as the Finnish folk tale “Why the Magpie has a Long Tail” regarding a too-talkative magpie that informed a man he would die in 24 hours. God was so annoyed with this brazen behavior that He grabbed the bird by its stubby tail and pulled its tail feathers into their present long slender form, as a reminder of the Magpie’s effronter. There’s also one from Sweden : Salt on a Magpies Tail‘,
Magpies are often referred to as ‘thieving magpies’ in England due to their fancy for shiny objects such as jewellery and coins. So far mostly negative connotations, but in Korea the bird is a sign of inspirational instinct which can tell people that they will have visitors or house guests in the near future. In China, the name translates as ‘happiness magpie’ and to see one is a sign of good luck and fortune. The Manchu people of north-east China even regard the magpie as sacred, as it was a magpie who saved a prince from captors who later went on to found a long-running Chinese dynasty. In England seeing three magpies on the way to a wedding means good luck for the happy couple. The ancient Roman’s viewed the magpie as a creature of high intellect and reasoning powers. The bird is also an attribute of Bacchus, the God of wine. In Native American animal lore, the magpie was also viewed as having intellect. However, more often than not he was faulted for trickery and his intelligence was typically used in deceptive schemes. He cannot be judged too harshly though because his tricks are always played out with a light-hearted, good-natured intention. The high intelligence of these birds has been shown in a recent study, in which magpies were used to test avian self recognition.
The name magpie splits itself into two parts – the last part ‘pie’ comes from ‘pied’ in this case referring to the black and white plumage. The bird was originally known as ‘the pie’ but in the 16th C ‘mag’ meaning chatter, was added to the front making ‘ chatter-pied’ or magpie. Magpies are highly social can mimic other birds, and can be taught to solve puzzles to gain rewards. The collective name for a group of them is a tiding but they have also been known as a parliament. Shakespeare uses an older term for them, maggot-pies. Macbeth refers to the ability of the crow family to be taught to talk: “Augurs and understood relations have/ By maggot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forth/ The secret’st man of blood“. 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.
As a totem animal it is known as ‘the cunning prophet‘ , they are associated with divination, prophecy and the symbolism of bridges. They represent risk taking for prestige, and come into our lives to help us use prophecy and instincts to our advantage in ways which are clever or even stealthy. It represents the ability to balance, not only of physical black and white, but the balancing of any strong opposites in your life. The taking of joy in personal change, to let go the old and find the new with confidence and clarity. Intelligence, adaptability and success are all traits of the magpie.
So, negative thief, cunning prophet or good luck omen, it all seems to be down to personal belief and local folklore. I’ll still quietly nod in respect every time I see one on its own.