By Charlotte Owen
The chattering magpie is a bird steeped in magic and superstition. It supposedly bestows either good or bad luck, depending on how many you happen to see, and you’re probably familiar with one of the many different versions of the traditional nursery rhyme ‘One for Sorrow’. Seeing just one is usually deemed a bad omen but it’s possible to counter the ill effects of such an encounter by doffing your cap (should you be wearing one), saying good morning and asking ‘how is your wife?’ or bowing three times. The fortune foretold by more than one magpie varies from mirth to birth, silver, gold, wishes or kisses.
As a highly social species, it’s not unusual to see a gathering of magpies, known as a parliament, and they often come together to settle territorial disputes or establish a hierarchy – usually making a lot of noise in the process.
The magpie’s voice is a harsh cackle and its name derives from ‘mag’ meaning chatterer, which was added to ‘pie’ in reference to the pied colouration. The magpie does look black and white at first glance but when its feathers catch the light they glisten with secret shades of peacock blue and emerald green. Its magnificent tail is extremely long, possibly to assist with balance, and is a reliable way to identify a magpie in flight. Contrary to popular opinion, ‘thieving’ magpies are not overly fond of shiny objects and may even be scared of them.
All corvids are renowned for their cleverness but the magpie has one of the best brains in the bird world, and its intelligence even rivals that of the great apes. Magpies recognise themselves in a mirror, something that very few species – and no other bird – can do; they understand cause and effect; they can solve problems and use tools; they can remember ‘what, where and why’ and learn from their experiences; and they are capable of complex social interactions - they’ve even been observed holding ‘funerals’ for dead companions. Whether they are mourning their loss or simply noting the significance of such an event, there is definitely more to the magpie than first meets the eye.