Bird of the Month November 2022: Magpie

For the last five years I have lived in either the Highlands of Scotland or Shetland, stunning places with lots of wildlife. One species that both places are largely missing, though, is actually one of my favourites, the Eurasian magpie. So, whenever I headed south to visit family, it was always a real treat to see this beautiful and exotic-looking, if divisive, bird. Now that I have moved temporarily back to the southwest, I am making the most of being able to see and hear lots of them, making it a fitting bird of the month.

Pied Marvel

With their superficially black and white plumage, magpies look like no other species in the UK. The word ‘pied’, meaning black and white, actually comes from the magpie’s name because they are such a common example of this colour combination. In good light, the black takes on a beautiful iridescence, with a blue-purple sheen to their wings and green tint in their long tails. This gives them something of an exotic appearance compared to many of their relatives in the crow family, like the raven or rook. Even in silhouette, their flight profile is very distinctive, with their broad, rounded wings and long tail making them easy to identify. Their harsh clacking calls are equally distinctive, and you will often hear a magpie before seeing it.

This view shows the magpie’s blue and green iridescent hues

Magpies are adaptable birds and can make their homes in a variety of habitats from urban gardens and parks to woods and farmland. This is partly down to their varied diets. They take advantage of a huge range of food sources including invertebrates, fruit and berries, small birds and mammals, carrion, eggs and baby birds. The last two have given it a bad reputation with some people who blame it, along with the sparrowhawk, for songbird declines. However, magpies have been living alongside small passerines for millennia and their decline is much more likely to be result of a combination of factors including habitat loss and intensified farming practices over the last half century.

Clever Corvids

Like all corvids, magpies are extremely intelligent birds. As well as using tools, magpies are one of only four non-human animals that pass what’s called the mirror test. In 2008, German scientists painted a coloured dot on the birds which they could only see in a mirror. The birds scratched at the marks on themselves, proving they had the self-awareness to understand the image in front of them was not another bird. Only chimpanzees, elephants and dolphins have previously passed this test, with magpies being the first birds.

Azure winged magpies
Azure-winged magpies are Europe’s only other magpie
Azure winged magpie

This intelligence could be down to the fact magpies are very sociable birds. Scientists supporting the social intelligence hypothesis believe that having to cope with more social interactions leads a species to develop greater intelligence. Although they tend not to nest in colonies like Europe’s only other magpie, the azure-winged magpie, Eurasian magpies often form large groups outside the breeding season. They sometimes work together to find food and, like jays, often cache food for later, accurately remembering where they have hidden it.


A Bird of Myth and Legend

Magpies have lots of stories and myths attached to them, possibly because they are so visible. One of the first things many people think of when they think of magpies is the classic rhyme, ‘one for sorrow, two for joy’. The rhyme dates from at least the 18th century but other superstitions are even older. Some have religious connections, such as the belief that magpies refused to join Noah on the Ark. Some believed that they weren’t sufficiently respectful after Christ’s crucifixion because they aren’t all black. Beliefs like these mean that in Western culture, the magpie is usually seen as an unlucky or evil bird. In China, in the eastern part of their range, though, they are seen in a much more positive light, being bringers of good fortune and happiness.

Magpies have a wealth of folk tales and superstitions attached to them

Across Europe, the other common belief about magpies is that they love nothing better than stealing shiny objects for their nests. There is even a Rossini opera called La Gazza Ladra, or the thieving magpie, based on an earlier play about a magpie with an eye for silver. In 2014, however, an Exeter University study showed that if anything, magpies are more nervous of sparkly items. The stories may have come about because magpies are often inquisitive, or simply because on the odd occasion they do pick up something shiny, we are more likely to notice it than something dull.

Always a Joy

The rhyme might say ‘one for sorrow’ but seeing any number of magpies is always a joy for me. Despite not being the sort of person who usually ‘twitches’ rare birds, when Shetland’s second ever magpie turned up this summer, I made a point of going to see it. This sums up how much I was missing them! At time of writing the bird is still there and I do worry it will get lonely as they are such sociable birds. Clever, beautiful and charismatic, they are hugely entertaining to watch. Hopefully, more people will learn to love them and realise that they are not ‘evil’ but a valuable part of healthy ecosystems.

Sandness magpie
This rare visitor to Shetland caused quite a stir this summer

1 thought on “Bird of the Month November 2022: Magpie”

  1. When I was a child the only time we saw magpies was from the window of a railway carriage as we passed through the countryside. Seeing one magpie we would not rest till we had seen a second so we could move from ‘one for sorrow’ to ‘two for joy’. Today, from my kitchen window in the heart of a city, I see and enjoy seeing at least two at a time most days.

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