Research at Exeter University has revealed that magpies aren't terribly interested in shiny trinkets. They offered magpies two piles - one of shiny things, the other of objects covered in matt blue paint – with mounds of edible nuts two feet away. In 64 tests, magpies picked up a shiny object only twice - and discarded it immediately. The report concludes: ‘The objects prompted responses indicating neophobia – fear of new things. It seems likely that the folklore surrounding them is a result of cultural generalisation and anecdotes rather than evidence’.
Magpies are also often blamed for stealing and eating the chicks of songbirds. This is also exaggerated. Although the British magpie population has quadrupled over the past 40 years, a 15-year study run by the University of Sheffield has concluded that songbirds did better in areas where magpie density was higher. Pet cats are a much bigger problem.
One of the explanations for the magpie’s booming population is thought to be the amount of carrion from road kills available today, providing a year-round food source.
In rural Britain, solitary magpies were considered bad luck and are the only one of our common birds to require a protective charm. Many people still say things like ‘Devil go home to your wife’ or ‘Good morning, Mr Magpie, how is your wife?’ if they see one and others chant the familiar nursery rhyme:
One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told.
Eight for a wish,
Nine for a kiss,
Ten for a bird,
You must not miss.
According to a 1507 proverb: ‘Whan pyes chatter vpon a house it is a sygne of ryghte euyll tydynges’.
I'm very superstitious... I never shout at magpies, walk under ladders or put my shoes on the table.
A typical nest incorporates a roof, and may have two entrances, but some populations build open nests.
Long-eared owls often adopt old magpie nests.
The Italian for magpie is gazza, which gave us ‘gazette’ – a newspaper full of gossip and chatter.
The English word comes from ‘Mag’, short for Margaret - a name used in English slang to denote a talkative woman - and ‘pie’ from the Proto-Indo-European root pi- meaning pointy, which could be related to either its tail or its beak.
Magpies are very clever and inquisitive. Like other members of the crow family they are good at solving puzzles. They can recognise themselves in a mirror, which is unusual among non-primates, and can also distinguish between human faces. They have been observed using tools in the wild.
They have been observed laying grass by their dead companions in a possible mourning ritual.
In captivity, they can be taught to speak like parrots and have been seen using tools to clean their cages.
There was an old rural tradition of raising one’s hat to a magpie; now few people wear hats, the tradition has largely died out.
It’s rare for a magpie to ever travel more than 10km from where it was hatched.
Though most nests are built in trees, where there are no suitable trees magpies will build on the ground.
A magpie looks much bigger than it is: the tail makes up half the bird’s length. Its weight is only about half that of a wood pigeon’s.