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'I salute, I spit, and I count down from 10'

Paddy O'Connell
Who really hates magpies so much that they freeze at the mere sight of one? Radio 4 presenter Paddy O'Connell (right), for one. Here he explains his utterly irrational loathing of the bird.

Like millions around the land, I like birds. I can make a great tit box, fashioned from one length of wood, with no waste. I wake to bird song, even in the middle of a big city, and I have a sort of fascination for chickens.

But I've learnt to draw the line. I don't like magpies. I don't like them at all.

I'm told that owls can use their old nests, and that they're known to pick pests from the fur of sheep and cattle.

The RSPB says historically their numbers have recovered after a prolonged "persecution" by gamekeepers. So don't get me wrong, I don't mean the magpie harm, but I can't escape the feeling that it's got it in for me.

It might not make sense, but I look upon them as like winged hyenas. If they could, they'd smile at you, whilst pecking at your puppy.

'Brutally superstitious'

Or, given human powers for a day, they'd sit next to you on the bus shouting about the bird they copped off with last night. Leaving, they'd step on you as they pinched your shopping.

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In real life of course it's all much, much worse. Unlike humans with an attitude problem, magpies have been given powers of flight. This means not only can they get away, but also that they can glance down as they flee.

This bird's had me at hello all my life. Just as it's learnt to kill other birds, so I've learnt to be brutally superstitious. Leave aside its habits, they're well known, but a lone bird, tail twitching and beak stabbing, has signalled gloom many times in my life.

This is entirely the sort of irrational reaction that I'm hoping you can easily discount. I'm not arguing for you to see things like me, but it all dates back to the one adult bird that stood still and strong on the windowsill where I lived.

(This is back in the 1970s, when I had no internet, and so looked out of the window a bit more.)

Motionless it remained. Minutes passed, and I remembered it later as we mourned a death in the family that seemed to follow this odd event. Close up a magpie isn't black and white, even its feathers fool you. There's a blue hue there that seems to linger at the corner of your eye.

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. Sometimes I do all three, although never on my motorbike, because then I reckon the magpie might get me too.

Paddy O'Connell presents Broadcasting House on Radio 4 on Sundays at 0900 BST.


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