The old saying begins “One for sorrow, two for joy” but the other morning I find myself wondering what would seven magpies bring. The seven in question were gathered in the middle of the road around the corpse of a brown hare, presumably killed by a passing car. They took to the air as I drove towards them; young birds, their tails not yet fully developed, with at least one adult bird alongside them. Perhaps they were learning the ropes, discovering the easy meals to be had at this time of the year on Norfolk’s roads.
Despite striking plumage and resourceful nature, the magpie is often viewed with suspicion or even outright loathing. It has long been said that the magpie has a drop of the Devil’s blood in it. This is not the only religious association. The magpie was the one bird that refused to enter Noah’s ark, choosing instead to perch on its roof and chatter and swear at the drowning of the land. To add to this, Christian tradition has it that the magpie did not go into mourning at the time of the crucifixion. The habit of caching food for use in more difficult times, a strategy adopted by a number of bird and mammal species, has given the magpie the reputation of being a thief. This is perhaps most famously celebrated by Rossini’s opera ‘La Gazza Ladra’ – ‘The Thieving Magpie’.
You have to have respect for the magpie. An incredibly adaptable bird, it is able to feed on a very wide range of foodstuffs and has managed to exploit all sorts of opportunities. The magpie was one of the first species to peck open foil-covered milk bottles to reach the cream inside, a behaviour that extended to raiding egg boxes left alongside. However, the habit of raiding the nests of other birds brings an angry response from some quarters. While such behaviour can ruin breeding attempts, there is no evidence that this act of predation has had any effect on long-term changes in songbird populations, despite several scientific studies looking hard at this very issue. Our long history of rearing game no doubt contributes to a collective anger directed at the magpie, with persecution of this species fortunately less intense that it once was.
So what of the rhyme? What would seven magpies bring? There are many variants of the rhyme but the oldest version that I can find (and the one I use here) dates from 1750. It runs “One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl and four for a boy. Five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret never to be told.” Don’t tell anyone but I rather like magpies.