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Page last updated at 13:44 GMT, Friday, 28 March 2008

Why are magpies so often hated?

By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

Seen as a bad omen by many
Magpies are now one of the most common birds in the UK, says the RSPB. But they've also become one of the birds people most love to hate. Why?

They are described as challenging and arrogant, and that's by their supporters. With a reputation like that magpies would probably have an Asbo slapped on them if they were teenagers.

Love them or hate them, you can't miss them. Their numbers have increased by 112% over the last 30 years and they are now the 13th most commonly seen bird in British gardens, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

But when it comes to this intelligent black-and-white bird, most people love to hate them. After pigeons, they are one of the most vilified birds in the UK. Reasons for this include their "cheekiness", according to the RSPB.

"It's their challenging, almost arrogant attitude, that has won them few friends," says a spokeswoman. "But magpies are beautiful striking birds."

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
Paddy O'Connell on his irrational dislike. Click here to read more
They are scavengers and collect objects, with a weakness for shiny things. They are also seen as predators, eating other birds' eggs and their young, as well as plants. Magpies are sometimes blamed with the overall decline in songbird numbers. But the flipside, often overlooked, is that they are good pest-destroyers.

"We would never villainise them, they are just playing their role in nature's big picture," says the RSPB spokeswoman.

Where suspicion of the bird exists it often goes back to folklore and myth. In western Europe and North America magpies were thought to be bearers of bad omens and associated with the devil.

The bird has found itself in this situation mainly by association, says Steve Roud, author of The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland.

"Large blackbirds, like crows and ravens, are viewed as evil in British folklore and white birds are viewed as good," he says. "Magpies have a dubious reputation because they are a bit of both. Over the years they have been lumped in with blackbirds."


The negative connotations attached to magpies can be traced as far back as Shakespeare's time, when their "chattering" was complained about.

In the late 19th Century, superstitions circulated locally, says Mr Roud. So, in Durham in the 1880s, it was believed they were the only bird not to go on the ark with Noah, preferring to sit outside "jabbering over the drowning world".

To this day many people still have a ritual to negate the perceived bad influence of the magpie. What's more, they're the only bird in British folklore to elicit such a response.

Magpies mate for life
A typical magpie clutch is six eggs
It it takes 24 days for them to hatch
Young magpies leave the nest around 27 days after hatching
Source: Bird On! website
If one is seen on its own some people salute it and say: "I salute you Mr Magpie." Many variations exist, others turn around three times and say: "Hello Mr Magpie, how are you today, where's your wife, your child and your family?"

"Having such a ritual is extremely unusual," says Mr Roud. "The original form of these ritualistic sayings was about banishing the devil. It went 'devil, devil, I defy thee' and can be traced back to Shropshire in the 1880s."

Thankfully, for bird lovers, magpies are not viewed with universal suspicion.

The magpie is the national bird of Korea, where it's seen as a bird of great good fortune, of sturdy spirit and a provider of prosperity and development.

Shamanism believes that the magpie's wisdom includes prophecy, intelligence and good luck.

Maybe someone should tell the MEPs who recently called for a bounty of one euro to be placed on the head of all magpies, along with crows.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Personally, I like the little birds. It's not just their striking plumage but watching them hop along curiously looking around for things. I'm never sure if they are looking for shiny things or just food, but that brings something to the excitement of watching one!
Martin Rose, Felixstowe, UK

I too have an irrational fear of magpies, which I have had since childhood (although my mum doesn't know where I got it from as I'm too young to remember the Magpie programme). I live down a road with park and there are literally dozens of these damn birds somedays flying about or sitting in wait on roof tops. It is a cause of great amusement to my friends and family as I go about my day saluting any lone maggies to prevent impending doom. Even when I learnt to drive I would still have to salute and if I did anything wrong my instructor would joke there was a magpie you didn't see behind the car. To me there is nothing more sinister than that awful cacking call of their's - it sends shivers down my spine and a sense of panic there's a lone one about.
Two for joy, Essex UK

I love magpies - absolutely gorgeous when you see them up close with the iridescent greens/blues/purples in thier tails. I have to confess that I always greet a single magpie, and wish it a good day, much to the bemusement of friends and colleagues. What I want to know is, suppose I greet that sole magpie, to ward off it's influence, and then another comes along - does my warding off of the first magpie's influence prevent me from getting "two for joy" and all following benefits?
Eddie, Edinburgh

I put my name next to all those magpie haters. They chase off every other bird from my garden. Only yesterday the woodpecker was chased out. I actually happen to like crows a lot, they may throw their weight around a bit but they do co-exist with other species. Crows used to dominate our garden visitors and we enjoyed a wide and varied theatre of birdie activity with flocks of starlings setting down regularly, dozens of blackbirds, it is a long time since I saw the evening blackbird singing from my chimney top, We still get the wrens, tits, warblers and robins but over the past five years the magpie population has increased and when they arrive en-mass every thing else scarpers, even the crows, who have now left forever it seems. Very sad what can we do?
David Robinson, London

I find Magpies quite irritating as I drive my tractor arround the farm. It's like they know something, reminds me of Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" They should be culled, like grey squirrels.
Lee Worthington, Bristol

Magpies are intelligent, resourceful and visually impressive birds who are more than welcome in my garden. If the British public want to vilify any species, try the grey squirrel. They are non-native, destructive, predatory vermin and are far more of a threat to our songbird populations, not to mention our trees and, of course, our own red squirrel.
Rich Hall, Leeds, UK

I'm with Shakespeare.
John Lincoln, Vail, Colorado USA

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