1. The Magpie

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In which our hero learns something about the acquisition of knowledge

“[…] the magpie was originally a maggot pie, not because it had anything to do with either maggots or meat pies, but because this pied, this black-and-white crow, was still earlier named a Margaret Pie: just as the sparrow was dubbed Philip, the redbreast Robin and some tits Tom.  Margaret and its associated nicknames seem to have been particularly fruitful in this field of linguistics, for it was also from that name that the owl came to be called a madge.”

I Am a Cat Soseki Natsume (1905-6: 3-453)

So Madonna shares something with the owl?

That does it! Why was he reading this drivel? 

Oldman put the book down wearily and gaze out into the garden, a bit startled to see a magpie on the shed roof, quite close to the house. He squinted. Was that it looking back at him?

He had never really paid much attention to magpies, just one of those garden pests. Yet undeniably prettier than most and somehow able to impose on a landscape; strutting its stuff, walking like a Japanese Mikado in full regalia, white robes lined with black, a magnificent green train and the gimlet eye cocked.

There were often a pair out there he knew, without recalling them exactly, one delayed behind the other in that urgent flight pattern from one rooftop to another. Or was that just mating behaviour? The tardy arrival of the second minded him of the rhyme learnt in the hedgerows of Radley, one for sorrow, two for joy. Now somehow willing the second one into view as soon as possible to avoid a disaster to his day.

Technically a corvid, he was surprised to remember. One of the crows? Shurely shome mishtake⁠1? How much more imposing than that, a sleek agility hidden in the unmistakeable sailor’s gait of the species, and armed with that formidable black beak, capable he felt of piercing against considerable resistance, even his own.

So, not much poetry there.

***

His mind flips.

Maybe in the flight though? 

He catches himself cocking his head in tune with the magpie on the shed roof. He mimicks its movement, but his neck seems to lack the required mobility. Amazing to think that these were the dinosaurs,⁠2 still with us after all the disasters they had endured.

Still only one though. How did the rhyme go?⁠3

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.

Sorrow then. A slight niggle emerged. There is another aspect to this. Isn’t there something one can do to ward off the evil spirit if only one remains in view? You will have to remember that soon or the bird could win control of your day. 

For that is all he needs now, an ill omen.

The phrase floats into his brain in the cooling autumn sun:

Good morning Mr Magpie and how’s your wife today?

Wasn’t that it? Now why would you be asking after his wife? he muses. Wishing a mate on him so that there can be “two for joy” instead of the baleful “one for sorrow” he was contemplating? He runs the phrase over in his head a few times.

Yes that must be it.

He has never worried at it like this before.

A further niggle. Would a tacit recital of the charm suffice? Perhaps he had to say it out loud to ward off the impending doom?

What nonsense. Really!

– Don’t have the patience for it. Out loud that time. Goodness, talking to himself. Better get on. His gaze goes back to the shed roof as he prepares to recite, but the words die on his lips. The damned bird has flown.

Now what? He feels slightly ruffled. He knows this is all tosh, so what’s the problem?

Something makes him open the patio door. Maybe he can get a last glimpse of the receding bird and shout the greeting after it into the frosting air. He feels tired. Has he not had a bellyful of sorrow?

***

Stepping into the garden he looks left instinctively.

I think women look right first which is why supermarkets are laid out the way they are.

What was all this flotsam in his brain?⁠4

He scans the urban landscape and fancies he sees a long tail hanging from a branch in the neighbour’s fir tree.

For the greeting to have the desired effect, he feels you must first confirm that you are indeed able to see the actual bird. Luckily the neighbour’s fence gave way last Summer, conceding defeat to an overly boisterous Mexican Orange and, thus fatally weakened, had been laid flat by the strong gusts of the October winds. He had meant to repair it but time has flown.

He clambers over the broken fence into the next garden.

Let’s hope they are away. 

He will get a better view of the fir tree from here. But that is still two gardens away with the alleyway in between as well.

He looks over at the tree with the tail.

Drat, where is it?

He should have kept his eye on it when negotiating the obstacle course of the neighbour’s garden, but then he might just have fallen flat on his face.

No tail to be seen. Maybe it was that broken branch hanging down, or just wishful thinking?

Suddenly there it is again, in the open sky, commanding attention, as now two, three or more other birds, with rapidly moving, apparently short wings, fly in succession, chattering as they pass. The others fly on; but his circles back and alights, the long tail at once elevated and carefully carried clear of the ground.

*

How so, his

He starts to observe it again. Its gait is a walk and he follows it carefully with his eyes until it reaches the next set of fencing. It waddles down the boundary line, a quick hop sideways with wings just open and it is gone. Maybe attracted by food or some shiny object? Without thinking, he swiftly  scales the next fence and is in the Builder’s garden before he knows it.

– Oi!!

He dodges down to the bottom under the cover of the overhanging trees and flings himself into the large, ugly storage shed the neighbours threw up during one week in July.

– Stupid, stupid, he mutters to himself, squinting in the gloom. What am I doing? 

He cocks his ears for footsteps. The Builder is okay; it is the Wife who has the tongue on her, very sharp, and he winces at the thought of it. An earful from that quarter is all he needs. Relations have been strained since he reversed into white-van-man’s vehicle parked outside his own house. A lot of neighbours had got irritated by the way the family had taken over the street with their two white vans and a flamboyant SUV, and he was no exception. He had reversed into the vehicle on purpose but only to shake it – not wishing to do any damage to his own vehicle of course – but just to prove a point. You are parked too close to my space and I want you out!

Well, she had burst out of her front door quite vitriolic, and he too shocked to respond like a man, whimping out of it, sliding home with his tail between his legs. Yes, the Builder was actually very affable, if a bit of a blagger, but the Builder’s Wife…

Something moves in the gloom, a shadow, a scratching. And the gimlet eye.

Aha, a stroke of luck. 

The bird must have followed him in. His mind goes: Good morning Mr Magpie and how’s your wife today? but no sound emerges.

Has he really done all this in order to actually speak to the thing? Better to wait for the coast to clear and get back indoors.

The eye cocks again.

He sits on an empty drum, holding its gaze, then looks around. Did he really want to share this place with a bird? He associates with women a pathological fear of a bird in a confined space, yet here he shrugs off a hint of chill: Hitchcock, be gone.

What did he even know about magpies? Unpopular blighters but somehow unique.

*

It stands silent on some sacking at the back of the shed, observing him. It seems to be challenging him. Pretty arrogant, he thinks, but then that is a bit how they come over when observed.

The noisy chatter of their group flight remains in his ear. The exact shape of this bird is entwined with the half-dark, but as his eye grows accustomed he can make out a purplish-blue iridescent sheen to the wing feathers and the green gloss to the tail.

Always impressive, that tail. Only the swallow and the wagtail also have that exotic length, quite foreign really. Male or female, could anyone tell? Only a twitcher would know that, but since he placed them at about the same level as trainspotters, he can name none among his friends that he might consult. Might be a breeding bird since the flocks are made up of non-breeders, although quite how he knows that… A mate somewhere then? ‘Two for joy’.

He is sure there could be more than seven in a tiding, so what was the rest of the rhyme? Indeed, was there a size limit to a gulp of magpies? And what was the correct collective noun: a charm or a murder? It was well known that starlings just kept on joining in their murmurations, swooping in from all over at dusk in those amazing aerial displays, but magpies? Lowland gorillas can cope with about 17 others in a band apparently, but where’s the relevance in knowing that?

Eight for a wish,
Nine for a kiss,
Ten for a letter,
Eleven for worse and
Twelve for better.

His brain races, all this drivel about magpies overflowing inside him. What kind of a crazy moment is this?

He shivers. Someone has walked on his grave or an angel has passed overhead. No-one is coming down the path though.

Somehow the bird has drawn closer but he has not noticed it make the move. He feels small.

There is a moment of silence.

#

– Deep down you know this stuff about us magpies is all superstition, yet you remain susceptible to it. I find that endlessly fascinating.

He feels certain he would have heard it snort had it been capable.

A talking magpie! So finally he has gone mad.

– We magpies have been subjected to a colossal amount of it from you humans, to the point of mixing up the superstitions about us with many of others. In Western Europe and North America we are thought to be bearers of bad omens and associated with the devil, the which suspicion often feeds back into your folklore and myth.⁠5

– As I know you know, a single magpie is associated with bad luck, which is why you have been making all this effort to greet magpies correctly when they are encountered, either in order to allay bad luck or to encourage good luck. This all relates to the number of birds seen and therefore their place in the Magpie dictum. If a lone Magpie is before you, you rush to salute it to show you respect it.

– Interestingly, this formality may be foregone if the Magpie looks you directly in the eye, for that shows it respects you. Bet you didn’t know that, eh?

He strains in the gloom to see but cannot make out where it is looking.

– Common greetings include “Hello Mr Magpie”; “How is your wife/where is your wife?”; “Good Morning/Evening Sir”; and other marks of respect. Others, upon seeing a lone magpie, prefer to say the words “I defy thee” seven times. Alternatively, pinch the person you are walking with, or, if you are alone, pinch yourself.

Is that it wiping a tear of laughter from its eye?

– We find ourselves in this situation mostly by association. Large black birds, like crows and ravens, are viewed as evil in your folklore and white birds are viewed as good. We have a dubious reputation because we are a bit of both, and unfortunately over the years we have come to be lumped in with the black birds. In the Middle Ages and during the witch-hunts in Europe, we were considered to be connected with witchcraft – just like the crow, the raven and the black cat. So, to this day, many people still have a ritual to negate the perceived bad influence of the magpie. You were mouthing it to yourself not ten minutes ago. You do know that we are the only bird in folklore to elicit such a response?

The beady eye cocks.

– Might even you be superstitious about me? We are an intelligent black-and-white bird that most people love to hate. After pigeons, we are one of the most vilified birds in the country.

Surely not pride in its voice?

*

– I think you are beautiful, striking birds. Blurted out and he genuinely mean it.

The second sign of madness, talking to the birds.

The Magpie seems to resume.

– Black and white plumage signals a dire combination in one place of both the Holy and the Evil. This interpretation of a natural reality has earned us opprobrium as being the only bird not to have worn full mourning at the Crucifixion, the only bird not to have sung and given comfort to Jesus on the Cross.

An impatient toss of the head.

– But what of the science of this? The Latin name for the common bird is pica pica from which you get ‘pie’. The words ‘piebald’ and ‘pied’ (meaning of two colours, especially black and white) both come from the word ‘magpie’. We are believed to have evolved from a Jay-like ancestor and the ‘pie’ refers to our black and white, or pied, plumage. We common magpies were originally known simply as ‘the pie’, but in the 16th Century, ‘mag’ – meaning chatters – was added.⁠6 For we are very vocal birds.

You can say that again.

– And our rapidly repeated “A-chacka-chacka” chattering call may be harsh, but it is unmistakable. Of course Mag is a shortened form of the name Margaret.

– Which I believe is where I came in?

Somewhat archly. And a sexist observation: women chatter. But the bird was in its stride.

– So the word ‘magpie’ comes from ‘Margaret Pie’. The negative connotations attached to magpies, when our ‘chattering’ was complained about, can be traced as far back as Shakespeare’s time. It was even current in Durham in the 1880s to assert that we were the only bird not to go into the Ark with Noah, apparently preferring to sit outside ‘jabbering over the drowning world’<QUOTE>. One does wonder what chance we have got, faced with four thousand years of transgression.

It shifts position on the sack.

– I think it is time to change up a gear here and take on our critics. Primo, we magpies mate for life and we make a better fist of it than you. This one fact is probably behind the origin of the rhymes relating the persistent superstition that a single magpie brings bad luck.

One means anger,
Two brings mirth.
Three a wedding,
Four a birth.
Five is heaven,
Six is hell.
But seven’s the very Devil’s ain sell.

– By the way, that’s a Northern variant for you from outside of your region. These things are all relative, it really is a question of culture. You should get out more, open your mind to other stimuli. A third and Irish version of the superstition says that to meet a magpie on the road is a sign of bad luck.⁠7 Yet two magpies are good luck, three for sorrow, four for joy, five for a wedding and six for gold. So we are both bad luck and good luck as it happens. No longer quite as cut and dried is it?

– Let us continue to shine a brighter light upon these matters. According to tradition in Germany, the number of magpies indicates the nature of forthcoming events, a slightly more objective barometer. One is indeed viewed as unlucky, but two bring merriment or marriage. Three means a successful journey, four good news and five indicates that you should expect company soon. There are parts of the world, although I have never visited them myself, where our reputation is yet more positive. Shamanists believe that the magpie’s wisdom includes prophecy, intelligence and good luck. In Korea, they believe that good news will arrive when the cry of a magpie is heard. We are even their national bird, seen as great good fortune, of sturdy spirit and a provider of prosperity and development.

– But it is the Chinese, in their great wisdom, that are our champions. They traditionally see the magpie as a bird of good fortune – except if you kill one, when misfortune will surely befall you. Generally though, instead of being a sign of misfortune, we are one of their most popular birds: the messenger of good news and fortune, a symbol of happiness. In their mythology, a three-legged crow is used to represent the Sun, because three was the number for light and goodness, of which the sun was the embodiment. It is our song that foretells happiness and good luck, which is why Chinese people call us Happy Magpie. Our name in their language – 喜鹊 – literally means “bird of joy”.

He remains unconvinced how this chattering evil bird could have become such a singing, shining light in only two paragraphs.

– We commonly feature in their folktales, the best-known of which is “The Story of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl”, where magpies formed a bridge for the separated lovers to meet every year on the day of Qixi. The Manchu people in north-east China went as far as to regard magpies as sacred; we figure in their legends.

You’re going to tell me all about it, aren’t you?⁠8

***

– Thank you for the opportunity. A goddess called Fokulon and her two sisters were playing beside the lake when a beautiful magpie dropped a piece of red fruit. Fokulon picked it up and ate it. Soon she gave birth to a boy, named Bukulirongshun, and he became forefather of the Manchu people. Bukulirongshun and his descendants were all heroic and skilled fighters, but neighbouring tribes felt threatened and combined to wipe them out. All but a boy called Fancha was killed. He escaped, pursued by the killers. As dusk fell, they almost caught up with him – but then a magpie landed on his head. He stood motionless – and the hunters mistook him for a tree trunk. Ever since, Manchu people look upon magpies as a symbol of happiness and luck. In 1644, a Manchu ruler became emperor of the whole of China, establishing the Qing Dynasty which lasted from 1644 to 1911 and most Chinese people now accept the magpie story. Therefore it is in the East that we seem to prosper. One reason for this might be that there are 20 species of magpie and tree pie in the world, most of which may be found in India.

You seem to be jacks of all trades – scavengers, predators and pest-destroyers… So you are a well-loved species?

– No, we are killers, predators, eating other birds’ eggs and their young. Most members of the crow family (including magpies) will take eggs and nestlings and we do supplement our diet in the breeding season by raiding the nests of smaller birds and eating the eggs and baby chicks. This practice makes us much disliked by humans as it can be upsetting to witness, but it is completely natural. Another reason for this dislike includes our ‘cheekiness’, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.⁠9 And I quote: “It’s their challenging, almost arrogant attitude, that has won them few friends,” one of their spokeswoman has said, only recently. However, in the main, we are blamed with the overall decline in songbird numbers such as the thrush, as some people are concerned that our behaviour may have a long-term effect on songbird populations. The flipside, often overlooked, is that we are good pest-destroyers.

– It would seem that the old superstitions, particularly in the urban areas, are giving way to a general distaste in your species, due to our tendency to take out the odd songbird in the breeding season. I accept that we may indeed be observed taking small songbirds down, in flight, which is a behaviour once reserved only for birds of prey. Studies show, however, that Nature is able to cope, and songbird and game-bird populations do not suffer as a result of our occasional raids. As a result, we are often hunted by gamekeepers anxious to protect their birds and eggs, particularly the British gamekeeper.

The British gamekeeper? Where will it take him next? And why is this bird telling him all this?

So that you might better appreciate your companion, a voice in his mind gently opines.

Hmm, we are in it for the long haul.

*

– But, secundo, what is the evidence? Let me look at this more closely with you.

No thank you. But on it goes.

– Over the past twenty-five years our population has increased. This has coincided with the reverse fortune of many songbirds, particularly the thrush and the skylark, who have all but disappeared. Human twitchers have researched this, quite candidly with a view to blaming us for this decline. Yet what about the sparrowhawks, some of us say?

It draws itself up.

– Do you know that, after studying thirty-five years of records, they found that songbirds were no less numerous where populations of magpies or sparrowhawks were high than where they were not. There was simply no evidence that the number of so-called predators is determined by the availability of prey. Any increase in our population had not caused the decline in songbirds. Pretty conclusive stuff, and which it would appear not many of you are reading!

– We were most grateful, however, that the research did not stop there. The populations of these little birds seemed to be determined more by the availability of food and suitable nesting sites. So if predation was not the factor, what had had sufficient impact on the songsters’ food and habitat to wipe them out? It was found that under intensive farming methods the change from Spring to Autumn sowing and its allied increase in agricultural chemicals had reduced the amount of insects and weed seeds available for songbirds to eat. Allied to the grubbing out of hedgerows used for nesting, roosting and feeding sites by some birds, this is what has produced severe declines in many farmland species.

He finds himself staring long and hard at the bird. This beggars belief. And in he plunges again.

– Sir, you are scavengers and you collect objects. You have a weakness for shiny things. Nay, you have an international reputation for liking shiny objects, and you reputedly steal jewellery. Why else would you have the nickname ‘The Thieving Magpie’? In German and Swedish folklore you are seen as a thief. In both Italian and French folklore your penchant for picking up shiny items is thought to be particularly directed towards precious objects. Did not the great Rossini wrote his tragicomic opera using your name, ‘La Gazza Ladra’, concerning a French serving wench who is accused of theft, tried, found guilty and executed, only for the true culprit to be revealed too late? A magpie, and in remorse, the town organises an annual ‘Mass of the Magpies’ to pray for her soul. I seem to remember that the Tintin adventure, ‘Les Bijoux de la Castafiore’, was based on this theme too, no? I could go on!

Why this sudden incandescence?

– Pa!

It holds up a wing as if in mock self-defence.

– We are considered to be evil birds only by people who insist on attaching human values to the natural world! In Scotland, a Magpie near the window of the house foretells death…

He starts. Had he died then? That might explain this bizarre event.

– … merely because flocks of magpies fly round a church and sit on the roof as a burial takes place. Yet this is only because the disturbance of the earth almost always guarantees us a feast of worms when you mourners have gone.

– I have long mused on why your species needs these myths. None of them bear closer inspection. In Norway, where we are considered cunning and thievish, sometimes even wicked, we are also welcomed as playful and loud birds, harbingers of good weather. A 19th century book, ‘A Guide to the Scientific Knowledge of Things Familiar’,⁠10 quotes the proverb: ‘A single magpie in spring, foul weather will bring’. A more objective publication than what is going on in your mind at the moment, the book explains this simple superstition as arising from the observable habit that we magpies forage together in pairs only when the weather is fine. A case of the half empty glass you might say.

– Until the mid-19th century we were very common and actually popular with farmers, because we eat harmful insects and rodents. But from then until the First World War, heavy persecution by gamekeepers intent on keeping game alive for you to shoot yourselves – yet not always to eat might I say – caused our numbers to plummet. Since World War II, our numbers have increased, in fact trebling from 1970 to 1990, since when they have become pretty stable. Which would suggest to me that, since then, we are in fact enjoying some sort of ecological equilibrium. Urban and suburban magpie populations have increased much faster than rural numbers, which may be how we have become quite so noticeable recently. Our numbers have increased by 112% over the last 30 years and we are now the 13th most commonly seen bird in British gardens.

– Paradoxically, in towns, we are not persecuted. We actually nest closer to people since this protects our brood from crows, would you believe? There is also more food available and we breed earlier in the year because towns are warmer than the surrounding countryside. Our urbanites use artificial nest sites and nest materials, and we can take food from bird tables, sometimes storing it in man-made structures such as gutters and eaves.

– You can take heart from the reality that there are factors that conspire to naturally limit our populations, such as a lack of nesting territories or the high mortality among our young birds. Yes, you are not the only species to be preoccupied by the future of your young. Your twitchers do not recommend hand-rearing young magpies by the way. We become very tame and, when released back into the wild, these young will often seek human company. Now some people, especially children and the elderly, get seriously frightened by a magpie suddenly landing on their head or shoulder and trying to drive us off will cause us to grab. It does not take much for the person to believe that we are attacking.

Du Maurier has something to answer for then, he thinks. The passion with which the case had been put was convincing.

– I realise that I do not even know what you eat, Oldman says.

– Truth to tell, we are omnivorous. I can eat anything from grain to fruit to carrion. My bill is strong and has a sharp edge for cutting flesh and we will catch and kill any number of smaller living things. Yet during times of plenty, we will hoard the surplus in the ground to eat later and these caches are spread around the range. We are intelligent creatures I repeat. We can open a latch, we can be taught words like a parrot and we can mimic other birds. You may remember that 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!

No, not as a matter of fact, can’t say I was acquainted with Gerald Durrell. He can feel himself losing patience. This Exercise in the Rehabilitation of the Common Magpie looks set to continue. He cannot comprehend why its presentation has become so insistent upon this point.

– We are sociable birds and will work together. Four of us will terrorise a cat as we team up to launch feigned attacks on the animal as a general campaign against them as predator and egg thief. We have even been observed to fly down and lift to safety an injured magpie which has been hit by a car and is lying in the road.

*

It pauses to preen a feather. The style is magisterial, knowing, pompous, tiresome, and he is beginning somewhat to resent it. Rather bad pedagogy in all; bore your pupil and where does that get you? He senses however that he is himself taking it all rather seriously, as if he had come to believe that the Magpie was indeed talking to him; but this can only be some kind of projection. Yet from where was he dredging up this exhaustive – and exhausting – compendium of knowledge?

– Many would like to do away with us, but we magpies are cunning and difficult to trap. You will not have bothered to inform yourself about this, but gamekeepers are advised to use the Larsen trap.⁠11 This is a wire cage trap with a spring-loaded door, designed to catch us alive. It can be baited with food, or even with a live decoy magpie. This is legal as long as the decoy bird is humanely treated, sheltered and given food and water daily. Hmm.

What now, irony?

– The rules are strict. The trap must be checked regularly, at least every 24 hours, and any trapped magpie or carrion crow humanely destroyed. Of course, your species misuses these traps to catch true birds of prey which must be released or the authorities informed. Ironic in all this to know that we magpies are in fact fully protected by the European Union except that the UK Government has actually derogated from directives in relation to the control of magpies. Did you know that there exists an annual general licence allowing us to be “killed … for the purposes of preventing serious damage to agricultural crops or livestock, preserving public health and air safety, and the conserving of wild birds.”? It is also legal to destroy our nests, even if in use. Actually you would be well advised to check first as our old nests are often re-used by protected species.

This litany was delivered with some dignity he felt. Strange how a legal system could be so punctilious yet typically motivated by the concerns of the landed few.

– I have wanted you to understand our reality. The pied plumage from which we get our name is striking, and together with my loud, harsh chatter, prevents any confusion with another species. Like many other birds, we mate for life. A pair will stick together and where you see one, you will nearly always see the other nearby. Our pairs are monogamous, and we remain together for the duration of our lives. The gangs of magpies that alarm you in our breeding season often consist of a happy couple along with a lot of hopeful single males. In the spring, we often gather in large numbers to resolve territorial conflicts and social standing. These gatherings you call parliaments and are probably what have given rise to your many nursery rhymes and poems about magpies. For the rest of the year, we tend to hang around in large groups, sometimes as many as 100, like one extended family living together and helping each other out. In winter we become more gregarious, wandering and feeding in smaller parties or flocks to gather at a common rendezvous to roost at night. Early in the new year, large numbers collect together for mating. Charles Darwin, the great man himself, referred to these congregations as “marriage meetings”.

– We select tall trees, sometimes pylons or, where trees are scarce and even in well-wooded country, thorny bushes and hedgerows, to build a large, domed nest up high. It takes a pair of us around 40 days to build it, firmly attached to a central fork in the upper branches. It has one well-concealed entrance; domed to prevent predation by other crows, although some do not bother. Both parents feed the young after they have hatched. If the food supply is poor, the stronger, older nestlings get all of it. This helps to ensure that at least some of them will survive.

– I have to admit (did it smile here?), that genetic studies reveal that our females are not averse to a little variety, with the result that about one in 15 baby magpies is not the child of the male of the pair. Ahem.

– The young birds stay in the parents’ territory until September or October, when they form loose flocks, feeding and roosting together. During the winter, flocks may join together to form large winter roosts and some breeding birds may also join these roosts. The months following fledging are a dangerous time for young magpies, with a high percentage failing to make it through the first year. If the young birds survive to breed, their average life expectancy is around three years. Some live much longer than this, with the oldest recorded being over 21 years old.

A wry smile plays in it eyes.

– So I hope to be here a little longer yet.

*

A pause, and then nothing.

His senses reeling, he had somehow missed the bird’s departure. That quick sideways hop and it had disappeared again, the wings open a fraction. He must learn that signature move and predict its moment next time. Note to self.

Next time?

He felt unprepared, oddly bereft. He was seriously bemused to have found himself talking to a magpie almost from page one and yet so intensely stimulated. What was it going on about? Of what possible relevance could the mis-application of human forenames to the bird population be, which is where this had all started? Could lessons be drawn from the body of new knowledge he had just been obliged to swallow?

Immediately sprang to his mind the evident human need to see ourselves in everything – anthropomorphism, The Pathetic Fallacy, plague of the Romantics – call it what you will. In the case of the birds, this might actually be seen as somehow a talisman of our success, birds being the sole survivors of the dinosaur population.

He knew from the behaviour of his ten-year old how the fascination (of human males at least) with the dinosaur continues to this day, replicas of these formidable lizards selling like hotcakes to clamouring boys. We were nowhere to be seen when they roamed the earth but they are actually the previously most successful population, cruelly wiped out by an asteroid they assert, which event, fortunately for us, opened the way to the rise of the mammal.

He felt that this making sense of the natural world was a search for a kind of comforting Certainty that would, if it existed, perhaps enable him to remove the content of angst from his relation with it and thus help him move on. The magpie had presented him with a more Uncertain set of behaviours which he knows some humans could make use of, and to their advantage.

So maybe he had grasped it?

***

It is generally known that, along with the seagull, the magpie is among those few birds that have successfully managed the transfer to the urban environment and populations are thriving. As our urbanised culture moves us away from the natural world, the success of the magpies gets a progressively bad press, and he supposes the book has begun by one of its number seeking to reinstate their reputation.

And, let’s face it, is he not something of a magpie himself, taking bright ideas home with him all the time?

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1 Ref Private Eye magazine: (Shome mishtake, shurely? Ed) is a frequent comment supposedly scribbled into the copy by the editor and mistakenly printed as part of the article. The slurred ‘s’-sounds refer in part to drunkenness, which Private Eye has for a long time associated pejoratively with journalists. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recurring_in-jokes_in_Private_Eye

2 Birds are dinosaurs Dr Paul Willis http://www.abc.net.au/science/slab/dinobird/story.htm

3 Counting Rhymes from http://www.shades-of-night.com/aviary/rhyme.html

4 This chapter constructed from information researched at:

BBC News magazine website http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/7316384.stm; BBC H2G2 Site http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A1094230;

RSPB Website http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/name/m/magpie/index.asp;

Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magpie and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_Magpie;

Garden Birds http://www.garden-birds.co.uk/birds/magpie.htm;

Birdcare Website http://www.birdcare.com/birdon/birdcare/tipsheets/magpies.html; The answer bank site http://www.theanswerbank.co.uk/Article1224.html;

From the answer bank forum http://www.theanswerbank.co.uk/Phrases-and-Sayings/Question79230.html;

Resolved question on Yahoo http://uk.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20070301120106AAXTGSU; Ciao website http://www.ciao.co.uk/10_Most_Common_Superstitions__Review_5367219;

The Lone Magpie Page at wulfie.co.uk http://www.wulfie.co.uk/magpie.htm; Timeless myths website http://www.timelessmyths.co.uk/saulting-magpies.html;

A Post by Magick on ghosts-uk.net http://ghosts-uk.net/modules/newbb/viewtopic.php?topic_id=2596&forum=17&start=10;

Shades of Night http://www.shades-of-night.com/aviary/folklore.html;

posts on YACF http://yacf.co.uk/forum/index.php?topic=6815.0.

5 The following information comes from an entry in Wikipedia

6 From Wikipedia

7 Why I Hate Magpies Paddy O’Connell: “The sight of another lone magpie still stops me short. Far from wanting the numbers to halve, I instantly want them to double. I scan the horizon looking for its mate. If I fail to find it, I salute, I spit, and I count down from 10.”

8 Following story from the answer bank site http://www.theanswerbank.co.uk/Article1224.html

9 See the RSPB Website: http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/name/m/magpie/index.asp

10 A Guide to the Scientific Knowledge of Things Familiar, Rev Dr Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, London circa 1840

11 See RSPB Website: http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/name/m/magpie/index.asp

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