Weekly Nature Watch

Weekly Nature Watch 2nd October 2020

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There was a time – when old Tommy was still about – that magpies locally were a rarity but how times have changed.

Now that there is no Tommy to pursue them, magpies hereabouts have become ten-a-penny. In fact, this summer, we had a brood of them, reared in a neighbour’s garden, which remain something of a legacy. There were four youngsters in that brood and together with their parents, the youngsters are still around. Accordingly, the cackling laughter of magpies has now become commonplace here.

If my sister-in-law was around, she would be greeting them every day, for there is an old tradition that she holds to which suggests that an encounter with a magpie requires us to treat the bird with respect and enquire as to the bird’s health, the health of its spouse and its family. My sister-in-law is one that subscribes to that particular fashion. I don’t, although I do have a certain regard for these black and white members of the corvid clan and admire them as particularly handsome birds, not just black and white but tinted with marvellous flecks of iridescent green and blue. And, like all members of the corvid clan, magpies are uncommonly intelligent to boot.

Of course, the world in general is set against all corvids. Crows in general, especially the dreaded hoodie, get a pretty bad press and magpies in recent times have also been getting it in the neck from bird-watchers in particular, openly blamed for the universal reduction in songbird numbers. There are friends of mine who spend quite a bit of their time trapping and dispatching magpies from their urban garden and I know of others who treat them in much the same way. Yet the experts, in the shape of the British Trust for Ornithology, say that there is absolutely no evidence that increasing numbers of magpies have had any influence on the songbird population, which is good enough for me.

I’ve never known just how such stories start but in Scotland there is an old saying that suggests magpies have a drop of the devil’s blood beneath their tongues. Thus, magpies in this part of the world are regarded with deep suspicion. Yet, all over Britain there are those who, like my sister-in-law, when they see a lone magpie, will salute it because they believe that failure to address the magpie in this way is likely to bring bad luck!

There are also any number of versions of a rhyme which seems more often than not, to begin, “One for sorrow, two for joy …”  followed by a variety of alternative verses which can number up to twelve! Whilst in many parts of the world, magpies in general are said to be harbingers of bad luck, in some far eastern countries such as South Korea and China, they are instead well regarded as good luck talismans. In Yorkshire however, magpies are closely associated with witches and indeed are said sometimes to be witches which have transmogrified themselves into magpies and hence, the sighting of a magpie is a bad omen. The suggestion that to see a single bird will bring bad luck, probably accounts for the way in which the various verses have evolved and why it has the more superstitious looking frantically around the sky for a second bird in the hope it may bring them the element of joy.  

As said, there are countless variations on a theme. One old nineteenth century magpie hunter, Mr. Speedy, had the following version:- “One’s sorrow, Two’s mirth, Three’s marriage, Four’s death, Five’s heaven, Six is hell, Seven’s the Devil’s Ain sel”.  It is suggested that Mr. Speedy was the author of this verse and seems to have spent much of his life pursuing and shooting them to oblivion. Nevertheless, despite his wholesale slaughter of them, surprisingly he still expressed considerable respect for magpies. “The magpie is one of the most expert, genteel and well-dressed of thieves, Few British birds possess such a rich glow of colour, the brilliancy of the plumage of the tail and wings being of metallic splendour, the bird being gay alike in nature and plumage”, he declared.

As tor that suggestion of thieving, there are those who allege that magpies are fascinated by shiny things such as jewelry, which they are apt to steal. Yet some experiments have been carried out by deliberately presenting hand-reared, tame magpies with various sparkly items, although apparently without promoting any reaction or interest on the part of the birds. Just as old Tommy was a successful adversary of magpies in his day, Mr. Speedy too was an effective controller of them. Indeed, magpies were common and plentiful up to the middle of the nineteenth century when an increasing interest in game shooting saw the magpie more persistently targeted and consequently their numbers were considerably reduced. Their numbers only started to recover in the wake of the Second World War. In recent times however, these have rocketed and between 1970 and 1990 their numbers trebled!

Among other members of the corvid clan, ravens, the largest and most spectacular of all the crows and many say, the most intelligent, are absolutely hated in parts of northern Scotland where they cause a good deal of trouble to sheep farmers, predating newly born lambs by pecking out their eyes and taking the lamb’s tongues. Ravens, like magpies, suffered once game shooting became popular during the nineteenth century, and all over Britain their populations fell until they were largely confined to remoter parts of these islands such as mountainous and fairly isolated areas of coastline. Hence their presence in the far north of Scotland, where they are such a problem.

However, like magpies, ravens are currently marching back and indeed there are even increasing instances of ravens returning to the more populous towns and cities. Of course, once ravens, together with red kites, were a common sight in our towns and cities where they did a good job in keeping the streets clean by feasting on human detritus. Whilst these days, we generally keep our streets cleaner than used to be the case, their presence will doubtless increase as the amount of litter grows. I find it depressing that we certainly appear to becoming increasingly prone to depositing litter in our city streets and furthermore, in recent times there has been no shortage of litter in our beauty spots either. The carelessness of people in littering our countryside really does upset me.

Ravens were once regarded as the ‘battlefield birds’ for they certainly gathered where warfare occurred. Indeed, they appeared to be able to predict where human conflict was likely to arise, stationing themselves on battlefields even before the fighting began. Of course, their reputation was well earned because their presence at such places was so that they could pick the bones of those who fell in battle! A pretty gory reputation for these kings of the crow family to be given but I understand a reputation which they well and truly earned in days of yore.

As for magpies, they now enjoy an even darker, modern-day reputation which they undoubtedly share with the rapacious sparrowhawks as the terrorists of our gardens, That magpies sometimes kill young birds or take their eggs there can be little doubt albeit that, as said previously, the amount of overall damage they do to populations may be insignificant.  The oft-hated sparrowhawk is perhaps a ‘cleaner’ killer than the magpie, stealing in almost unseen before making off with its prey in flash to be consumed away from where it was taken. Nature is, of course, red in tooth and claw leaving little room for sentimentality and that therefore is the way of things. Nevertheless, if you are of a superstitious character, no matter what the crimes of the magpie, tradition demands that you always need to show that bird respect … for you just never know!

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods