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Magpies And Superstition

Magpie

Do you salute magpies? Do you worry that if one crosses your path your day will be filled with doom? If so, you’re not alone. For even the most rationale of sceptics can find their faith in reality floundering upon seeing a magpie.

In Britain there is probably no other wild bird that is associated with superstition as much as the magpie. Folklore has surrounded magpies in the UK and the rest of Europe for 100s of years and Victorians were so fearful of magpies that they nearly hunted them to extinction.

However, before the spread of Christianity the magpie was an important symbolic bird often associated with good luck or fortune. The Romans, for example, believed that the magpie was highly intelligent with excellent reasoning abilities, and in Ancient Greece magpies were sacred to Bacchus the god of wine.

Further afield some tribes of Native Americans believed that wearing a magpie feather was a sign of fearlessness, while others considered the magpie to be a sacred messenger of the creator, or even a guardian with shamanic properties.

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But the Church viewed the magpie very differently, insisting that it was the only bird not to weep or comfort Jesus during his crucifixion or go into a proper period of mourning because of its pied plumage. From this grew a number of superstations around magpies and the stories in the bible.

In the 19th century a vicar reported one of his servants explaining that the magpie was the only bird not to enter Noah’s ark, preferring to sit outside chattering and swearing in the pouring rain. Another tale from the same era says that the magpie is a hybrid between the raven and the dove and therefore the only bird not to have been baptised.

It was also the Church that started the rumour that magpies carry a drop of the devil’s blood in their tongues. If you were to cut the tongue to release the blood then the magpie would be capable of human speech.

But why did the magpie get such a bad rap and how did these superstitions come about?

Without a proper understanding of how the world worked our ancestors would try and explain mysterious events by linking them to supernatural causes. Often this meant they linked the appearance of an animal or a natural phenomenon such as a change in weather with an event that occurred soon after that could not be otherwise explained. This rudimentary way of explaining the world gave rise to many of the superstitions that people still believe in or at least acknowledge today.

Death, in particular, could be very difficult to predict or explain and people quite rightfully were fearful of death and the unknown. It’s why so many superstitions and old wives’ tales arose around this morbid subject.

Death and thievery

Like other corvids magpies have long been associated with death. In medieval times they would have been found scavenging near battlegrounds, field hospitals, and the gallows in search of carrion. During breeding season, they will supplement their diet of grubs and berries with the eggs and chicks of other birds, including pheasants, which meant gamekeepers and other country folk wouldn’t have been too fond of them.

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Magpies are also known for their inquisitive and mischievous nature which meant they earned a somewhat unfair reputation as thieves with a particular liking for jewellery and other shiny objects. If a precious ring went missing it was easy to blame it on a magpie.

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 organises an annual ‘Mass Of The Magpies’ to pray for the girl’s soul.

Over time, the notion that magpies were bad birds morphed into the idea that magpies will bring bad luck.

Two Magpies

“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”

However, as the well-known rhyme shows, it is generally only seeing a lone magpie that is supposed to bring bad luck.

We’re not entirely sure why this is but we do know that magpies often mate for life so seeing a single magpie may mean it has lost its mate and therefore the chance of it bringing bad luck is higher. Indeed, according to the rhyme coming across a larger group of magpies could actually bring you good fortune and wealth.

To help ward off the bad luck that might come your way from seeing a solitary magpie there are a number of things you can do:

Salute the magpie.

Say ‘Good morning general’ or ‘Good morning captain’.

Say ‘Good morning Mr Magpie, how is your lady wife today?’

Say ‘Good morning, Mr Magpie, how are Mrs Magpie and all the other little magpies?’

Say ‘Hello Jack, how’s your brother?’

Doff your hat.

Spit three times over your shoulder.

Blink rapidly to fool yourself into thinking you’ve seen two magpies.

Flap your arms like wings and caw loudly to mimic the magpie’s missing mate.

Regional variations

The fear that a lone magpie will bring bad luck is fairly common throughout the UK and Ireland, but in some areas there are more specific magpie superstitions:

Scotland – A single magpie seen near the window of a house is a sign of an impending death.

Wales – If you see a magpie when starting a journey and moving from right to left then the journey will be hazardous.

Ireland – Magpies are the souls of evil-minded and gossiping women.

Yorkshire – Magpies are associated with witchcraft and you should make the sign of a cross to ward off evil spirits.

Somerset – Carrying an onion with you at all times will offer you protection from the bad luck a magpie may bring.

Northampton – A group of three magpies together predicts a fire.

Devon – If a fisherman sees a magpie first thing in the morning he won’t catch any fish that day.

Sussex – Bucking the trend, in Sussex a magpie perched on the roof of a house is regarded as a good sign and that the house is in no danger of falling.

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Good luck or bad luck?

And throughout the rest of the world magpies are not always seen as so unlucky:

China – a singing magpie will bring good fortune and is a symbol of happiness and good luck

Korea – magpies deliver good news and invite good people into your life.

Mongolia – magpies are smart birds that can control the weather.

France – evil nuns are thought to be reincarnated as magpies.

Scandinavia – magpies are associated with Skadi, the Norse goddess of the winter, although in Norway magpies are considered cunning and it is also the bird of the huldra, the underground people.

We now know that the Romans got it right. Magpies are highly intelligent birds with a brain-to-body mass that is equal to that of the great apes. They can use tools, play games, work in teams, and even mimic human speech.

So if you see a magpie today give it your very best salute, but not because you want to protect yourself from bad luck but to show this smart, colourful bird some well-deserved respect.

What do you do when you see a magpie? Let us know in the comments below.

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99 Responses

  1. I grew up in the countryside and we always salute and say “good morning Mr. Magpie how’s your wife and baby magpies today?” Where I live now in Northampton town there are a few magpies about and one made me jump out of myvskin when it landed on my window ledge. They are beautifully coloured

  2. 20240419 Bullhead City, Arizona, USA
    While watching an episode of ‘Endeavor’ I remember Inspector Thursday greeting a magpie in the morning on his way to the ‘nick.’ Because I see the odd magpie around our back yard which borders an arroyo in the Mojave Desert in Arizona, I thought I’d find out the meaning of his greeting to the bird. I knew magpies were relatives of jays. I’m familiar with Stellar’s Jays in Yosemite, which are beautiful, noisy and raucus. Anyway, magpies are comparatively tame compared to the hawks, falcons and roadrunners who frequent our back yard. Me? I said ‘hello’ w/o any ill effect.

  3. In Australia, cyclists adorn their helmets with long spikes (not to injure) but to protect them from injury when swooped in spring. Now we know if we see one, make ‘eye’ contact with it and keep walking. They always swoop from behind, so by looking at it & walking away, the magpie knows 1. It can’t surprise swoop you & 2. You aren’t interested in their babies

  4. Every time I have a magpie coming to my balcony something happens to me or I fall or I have some kind of accident! I’m not sure what is going on with the magpies, and why they still come around! It’s almost like I need to be hyper vigilant all the time! Very frustrating!

  5. In my garden I have 7 magpies mostly young, who visit everyday. I could not believe my eyes the first time they were all on the bird table. I put meal worms and fat balls out for them. They are delightful to watch.

  6. My husband passed away on the 7th May 2023, we have our own business in a mill complex and have been there for 36years, myself and our son continue the business now. My husband always went to work Saturday’s, his work was his passion. Since the 23rd of September we have had a magpie visit our unit every Saturday and sometimes on Sundays. At first I only saw one then one day there were two. I see the magpie on the ring doorbell and always say good morning. I find it a comfort somehow.

    1. This is lovely to hear. Our beautiful 18 year old cat Dotty died on Monday. Yesterday and today a lone magpie has stood at the glass doors at the back of our kitchen while I’ve been in there and pecked gently on the glass. This comforts me too, especially as our Dotty was black and white too.

  7. W.A. Australia. We love our visits. We have several magpies, along with other birds. They all have been visiting for years. All very friendly, cheeky gentle and chatty. They sing to us to let us know they have arrived, if we ignore them. The magpies are so sweet and even if we have human visitors they are not detured from popping in to say hello. It is the same family line with many generations added. They always bring their young to show us. So friendly and trusting that they will enter the house to find us …

  8. I see them as causing havoc in my garden, emptying my plant pots out and taking frogs from my nature pond, also took both my goldfish from another small pond.
    They scare off all the smaller birds I put seed out for and try to stick their heads through the birds best boxes.
    They are nest raiders and have seen eating small chick’s that they took from a starling nest.
    I dont like them and always scare them off if in my garden, nasty things in my opinion.

  9. I had one fall down my chimney I had to pull the board off it was behind was alive I picked it up and took it out and it flew away I hope I have good luck ????

  10. I had to chase one off after I heard pathetic mewing coming from the garden,it had managed to grab a new born kitten from somewhere and was relentlessly pecking at its little head,I managed to get the kitten,but unfortunately it passed during the night,I was rather shocked as I didn’t know they were carrion birds.

  11. Honestly, how can you list places with links to Magpies and not mention the biggest of all – Newcastle.

  12. I’m fortunate to have a family of magpies who built there nest in my skybox. The had 3 babies a few years ago it was lovely to watch them learn how to fly. Now they are back and another 2 at least are born. It’s the same family. I feed them most days they play around the garden and come up to the window. I feel honoured they chose my home to build there home.

  13. I salute. Always have done.
    However, anyone know why you only usually see very few? The most I have seen together is 27 on the roof of a house. Couldn’t believe it was that many.

  14. I was taught:

    1 for sorrow,
    2 for joy,
    3 for a girl &
    4 for a boy,
    5 for silver,
    6 for gold,
    7 for a secret, never to be told.

    I either wave or salute & say “Good Morning Captain”

  15. I love magpies. They are beautiful, very entertaining, and highly intelligent birds. I watched them tease both our dig and the neighbour cat as I grew up, since they had a nest in a tree next to our porch. Very entertaining. I wish we could have had cellphones and Tiktok in those days, maaan! 😂.

  16. When i see one magpie I always salute and say sorry for your loss. When there are more then one I say good morning.

  17. One for Sorrow
    Two for Mirth
    Three for a Funeral
    Four for a Birth
    Five for Heaven
    Six for Hell
    Seven for the Devil, his own self

  18. 1 for sorrow
    2 for joy
    3 for a letter
    4 for a boy/girl
    5 for money
    6 for gold
    7 for a story never been told
    8 for love
    9 for marriage
    10 for baby horse and carriage.

    It goes up to 50+ if I’m correct I’m only mid 30s but my Wiradjuri Mum told me this at a young age

  19. One for a wish. Two for a kiss.
    Three for a letter. For for something better.
    Also, in a China, do they sing or just cackl? So is that like hens teeth etc.

  20. Magpies are very intelligent,but quite nasty birds.They sit,in Spring,and watch and wait while smaller birds are nesting,then they go in and catch the fledglings or the eggs for food. Last spring 1 magpie had a quite well grown young black bird in my garden,and,even though I ran out to chase it off,it did not go till it had the blackbird safe in its beak. That’s what sort of bird they are!!

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