Magpies And Superstition
Of all wild birds, it is probably the magpie that is most associated with bird superstitions. Most negative superstitions regarding magpies are based around seeing just one bird. Throughout Britain it is thought to be unlucky to spot a lone magpie and there are a number of beliefs about what you need to do to prevent the rest of your day being filled with bad luck.
In most parts of the UK people will salute a single magpie and say “Good morning Mr Magpie. How is your lady wife today?” By acknowledging the magpie in this way you are showing him proper respect in the hope that he will not pass bad fortune on to you. By referring to the magpie’s wife you are also implying that there are two magpies, which bring joy rather than sorrow according to the popular rhyme.
In Yorkshire magpies are associated with witchcraft and you should make a sign of the cross to ward off evil. And in Scotland a single magpie seen near the window of a house is a sign of impending death, possibly because magpies are believed to carry a drop of the devil’s blood on their tongues or in another legend because magpies were the only bird that didn’t sing or comfort Jesus when he was crucified.
Other things you can do to prevent the bad luck a lone magpie may bring include doffing your hat, spitting three times over your shoulder or even flapping your arms like wings and cawing to imitate the magpie’s missing mate!
One for sorrow
As the well known 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.” shows it is only seeing a lone magpie that brings bad luck and groups of magpies are said to predict the future. There are many different versions of this rhyme with some counting as high as 20 birds.
Like many other birds, magpies mate for life and this may be the inspiration for this rhyme. In some parts of the world magpies are not associated with bad luck at all. In Korea a popular magpie superstition has people believing that that the magpie can foretell when they will have visitors in the future. And in China it is generally thought that the magpie’s song will bring happiness and good luck while in some parts of China the magpie is even considered a sacred bird.
A liking for shiny things
It is not fully understood why magpies have become associated with bad luck. However, magpies are members of the crow family and like all crows they may be attracted to shiny objects with a somewhat unfair reputation for stealing jewellery. Rossini wrote a tragicomic opera entitled La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie) about a French girl accused of theft who is tried, convicted, and executed. Later the true culprit is revealed to be a magpie and in remorse the town organizes an annual ‘Mass Of The Magpies’ to pray for the girl’s soul.
Another reason for humans disliking magpies is that during breeding season they will sometimes supplement their diet of grubs, berries and carrion with eggs and baby birds. They have also been known to kill small pets such as guinea pigs. However, studies have shown that magpies raiding nests have no effect on the populations of songbirds or game birds.