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 told….

The year is 1646. In your small Cornish farming village, strange things have been happening and there is unrest brewing. Whispering in corners and dark looks cast over lowered shoulders. Men gather round pints of ale and plot. Women congregate around baskets of washing with furrowed brows, hands cracked and raw from the starch and water.

You overhear their stories; how John Nancekivell’s cattle have been taken by a mysterious disease, Peran Menhenick’s crops have failed despite the recent good weather and young Tegen Gwinnel has been suddenly taken ill. On the outskirts of the village, you know the elderly widow Anne Trethick has been raising suspicion. Your mother tells you to steer clear of her, your father curses her name under his breath. Up country, Matthew Hopkins is continuing his legal slaughter as he steam rolls across England.

One day, whilst fetching water, you pass Anne’s cottage. A bird with white feathers, piercing black eyes and shiny black beak sits at her window. And as you pass, you hear it talk in a human voice.

What would you think?

Without a doubt, the magpie is the British bird most embroiled in superstition.  All over the country, you will find people spitting, saluting and spinning around when they spot the bird, fearful of the negative luck the species is suspected to bring. But does the demonization of these beautiful corvids have any founding?

One of the most common myths suggests that magpies are attracted to shiny objects and will steal jewellery and trinkets. This fable actually derived from a 19th century play, La Pie Voluese or ‘The Thieving Magpie’, which was later turned into an opera by Rossini, titled La Gazza Ladra .The story is about a servant who receives the death sentence for stealing from his master, when the actual thief is revealed to be her pet magpie. The opera is famous and the superstition that magpies have a fondness for shiny objects remained, despite being debunked by research in 2014 that revealed that they are actually frightened of reflective items. The myth is so ingrained that a psychological disorder is called ‘pica’ after the birds Latin name. The disorder refers to people who compulsively eat things such as dirt, mud, nails, chalk or other items which have no nutritional value and relates back to the mis-belief that magpies take such unnecessary items for themselves, either to collect or even to eat.

But magpie distrust goes back a lot further than 200 years. Their vocalisations were found to be a source of frustration during Shakespeare’s era and there have been stories circling that refer to biblical times; magpies were accused of being the only creature not to join the other animals on Noah’s Ark. They have also fallen foul of the accusation of being the only bird that didn’t mourn the death of Jesus. Some say that the magpie represents the devil and in Scotland, magpies are thought to hold a drop of the devil’s blood underneath their tongues; if you cut the tongue out, they would be capable of human speech. In Yorkshire, the species used to be associated with witchcraft. In fact, it was once believed that magpies sometimes embodied spirits who would help witches and would speak to them, as outlined in the opening paragraph. This may have come from the incredible vocalisation range that magpies have and the fact they have the ability to mimic other sounds, including the human voice. In the past, superstition and strong religious values meant that people were extremely suspicious. Not a lot was needed for accusations to fly and the idea of a bird speaking in human tongue would have been considered a bad omen and associated with the devil.

Today, the common nursery rhyme ‘One for Sorrow’ is still uttered regularly and many people have rituals to avoid the bad luck this bird will reign upon them. ‘One for Sorrow’ has many different versions and is thought to date back at least to the 16th century with the poem first documented by John Brand in 1780 with the following version:

One for sorrow,
Two for mirth,
Three for a funeral
And four for birth

with each alternate version predicting a different outcome; even numbers bring positives and odd numbers negative

This suggestion that the birds are bad omens and bringers of disaster is found in several different aspects of life. To see a lone magpie at the window of your house is thought to suggest there is to be a death soon. It was also suggested that a lone magpie foraging during the spring signifies bad weather which may threaten crops. Many of these myths revolve around one bad omen in particular; a lone magpie. This may be down to the fact that magpies are social birds; they often work together in groups and communities and will flock together in large groups. They tend to be monogamous birds too and will mate with the same partner repeatedly, working as a team in breeding season to build nests and rear their young. One really fascinating behaviour that has been observed is that magpies grieve and are thought to hold ‘funerals’. A quick browse of Youtube reveals several videos of magpies gathering to mourn a dead member of their community. One bird will stand by the lifeless body and call out, as other birds flock to the scene to pay their own respects, with some observers recording that the birds have even left small gifts such as bundles of grass besides the corpses. As well as evidence of the complex social societies of the corvid, it is also demonstrates the birds’ intelligence. All corvids have displayed signs of a high IQ and are believed to be amongst the most intelligent species. They are extremely curious and have shown to be one of the only animals’ species in the world that can recognise themselves in the mirror. They also have good memories and will hoard their food; digging a small hole filling it with excess food and covering it up, returning to it later when food is scarce.

There is a suggestion that some of the bad feeling from magpies may actually derive from bird breeders relating to the magpies’ predation behaviour; a smear campaign of sorts. Magpies feed on smaller birds and will get into their nests and eat their chicks and eggs. This is not the sort of thing that is usually found endearing and, in the past, when breeders would be trying to rear birds for commercial use, magpies may have been a nuisance; getting into the nests and destroying the ‘stock’. In fact, the anti-magpie feeling became so bad in the 90’s that gamekeepers began to use Larsen traps, a specially designed trap to catch ‘pest’ bird species (i.e corvids), to kill the birds legal due to a loophole in the law. The traps were being used to catch magpies during the breeding season, the adults in the cage left without food or water so they would starve to death, their hungry chicks left to the same fate in the nests. The horrific practice was labelled a ‘massacre’. At the time, supporters of the birds fought back, stating that bird numbers had been proven not to be affected by magpies, whose diet is also made up of carrion, insects, plants and berries. Some studies have shown that 70% of the birds’ diet is actually made up of insects, meaning their predation percentage would be relatively low.

I chose the title ‘Two for Joy’ instead of ‘One for Sorrow’ for positive connotations, and in some cultures, magpies are seen as good omens. Native American folklore suggests that magpies are bold and fearless, as well as friendly and helpful. In Korea, magpies are seen as the bearers of good news who bring good luck and happiness. Chinese folklore suggests magpies mean good fortune, and should you hear one sing, it is telling you of your good luck to come.

These beautiful and intelligent birds should not be dismissed because they are plentiful, or because we don’t fully understand their behaviours, or because they have been carrying around a lifetime of bad press. Invite them to your garden, because they are good at pest control, observe their behaviour and celebrate their quirks. And keep saluting and nodding and tipping your hat, but do it because these mysterious birds deserve our respect and admiration, not our fear and disdain.


Image source: Pinterest

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