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.

Read next

Magpie With Jewellery

Do Magpies Steal Shiny Things?

Great Grey Owl

15 Facts About Owls

Magpie

One For Sorrow … Magpie Nursery Rhyme

Carrion Crow

Why Is A Group Of Crows Called A Murder?

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.

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.

More bird superstitions

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.

BIRD SPOT FORUMS

Bird ID Guides

Learn to identify over 200 British birds

A Bird Friendly Garden

Create a haven for wild birds

Explore more

How Can You Tell Male And Female Robins Apart?

As Dead As A Dodo

Can Birds Smell?

The Starlings of New York

Extinct Birds

10 Birds That Look Really Weird

The Goldfinch In Art

Birds In Chinese Symbolism

58 Responses

  1. I had a magpie sitting on my sofa after I lost my dad. One magpie visits every day outside my front garden and then my back garden. Wish I could post the picture of it on my sofa

  2. great article, lovely to learn, My mum used to tell me that Magpies wern’t their own specees as people used to paint crows to ward of bad luck, so they are just painted crows, i am not sure who to believe now. But they still have lovely colors.
    “birds are usually better than no birds” – ernest hemmingway

    1. I’ve heard that too! Crazy! I’ve even heard of a magpie that was white as the main colour, with the black underbelly.

      What a crazy world we live in.

      1. That’s the Asian magpie. They are common in New Zealand. They’re like a negative of the European magpie: white instead of black and black instead of white – and just as cheeky.

  3. i’ve just had a magpie come to my window twice no knocking but just flew to my window, sat for a second and then it went. does anyone know what this means or symbolises?

  4. I was just going through the last process of paying for my new “used” car and what I believe to be a magpie seemed to be trying to get something in the space between the window and roof of the office I was in. Am I doomed or should I return the car and get a refund if I can? Don’t believe I’m a superstitious person but you don’t see many magpies in Aberdeen, I hope you can put my mind at rest!!

    1. That’s so weird I was literally just looking this up because a magpie appeared at my window in Aberdeen too, they’ve always been a sign of good luck for me so I’m hopeful!

  5. I live in the Veneto countryside of Italy. Five magpies flew into my garden today. Four of them settled for a few minutes on the high branches of a birch tree. The other on the top branches of a liquid amber. They remained
    long enough for me to snap a few photos of them. Then one led the others as they flew away and towards the nearby grassy river bank and fields. I’d like to believe they represent abundance as written in the poem.

  6. As a child in North London 70 years ago the drill on seeing a solitary Magpie was to hold your collars together as if to protect your neck until you saw another or one saw an ambulance. My wife relates the same from another North London area so it was a widespread practice.

  7. I was out walking the dog today. Something caught my eye on the corner of a small copse. I went to investigate and found a trap with 2 magpies trapped. I couldn’t leave them, especially as I’m superstitious of them. So I rescued them. One was easy. The second trickier, I couldn’t coax it out of the exit so I left it open, which I’m sure has p@@sed off the trap layer but hopefully it managed to get out when we had gone and it had calmed down enough. They’re beautiful birds.

  8. I always salute a magpie when I see one,whether it’s 1 or a few. I think they are beautiful birds and Always have done. Also very clever and they like sparkly things like me. Not only that but when I was pregnant with my son I Always saw 4 together. Practically every day. It’s like they know something you don’t. But saying this I do also if I see one aswell as salute I always ask how it’s other half is as a mark of respect as we know if you lose someone you love it can be very lonely.

  9. Acknowledging and hailing magpies is a long-held country superstition. We reveal how to salute a magpie, and other fascinating facts.

  10. i seen 2 outside eating food i threw out my mam died later that week i NEVER feed any birds now it all goes in the bin

  11. Every. Morning I say 5-6 or 1-2 magpie skipping in the back garden of my neighbour but nothing happened so far.Yes sometimes Luck but I need to keep a look out if this true meanings about them.

  12. Edmonton, Alberta. When do magpies and crows have alliance?
    On a mid October glorious sunny day, 6 weeks ago I was with a friend, when a bird ruckus, began behind a house. It reached a crescendo, then an owl flew across the park, chased by a flock of magpies and crows. The owl easily out paced the outraged CORVIDS. Too late in season for any baby birds to be seized from nests. Bad neighbours. Big drama.

  13. I woke up this morning opened my back door to see 12 magpies all sitting in a tree in my garden I could not believe it. Most ive ever seen was 5 together like that .

  14. My mom loved magpies, the day she died, I was looking out her kitchen window and on the fence 5 magpies sitting in a row, looking into the house!

  15. I have always loved magpies and felt drawn to them in the same way I am to black cats!
    I actually see these beautiful creatures as symbols of good fortune, always have a little luck or good news following a sighting of 1 of either.
    The more the merrier!

  16. I have a family of magpies that visits me daily. Started with just the adult pair, the male happily comes up to me, has a chat and sing sing and gets some snacks from me and she sits off to the side until I go inside. Now they have started bringing their two babies with them when they come. They are the sweetest birds once they know you are no threat.

  17. I seen 1 magpie at my window which is apparently is meant to mean sorrow or death and since then my gran has become sicker I then saw two magpies a few days later and for the past three days after seeing those two magpies I’ve had bad luck things have been going wrong for me

  18. Personally I adore all corvids, but the magpie, specifically the black billed magpie, is my absolute favorite bird in existence. Whenever I see any number of them (whether 1 or 7+) my heart fills with happiness and I end up having the silliest grin on my face for quite a while afterwards. Hearing their song has the same wonderful effect. ♡

  19. Magpies may be intelligent, yes, but they are also so very cruel. I recall seeing a puffed-up fluffy young pigeon ‘innocently’ in the garden on the grass near some magpies. It slowly walked up to one that immediately decapitated it. The baby pigeon, as big as them, did absolutely nothing wrong, other than being alone, lost, abandoned, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and sought ‘companionship’ with other birds that happened to be magpies. I’ll never forget that, because it was so unnecessary.

    1. I have also seen them chase and attack an owl. I tried to flap my arms in an hysterical way to scare them off but it slowed them a bit but they kept after it .

  20. I’ve just seen about 20 magpies walking together it looks like a magpie rave, hope these birds have a good day!!!!

  21. Theres a breeding pair outside my window and I feed them…apart from giving my cat a nasty peck and costing a bit at the vets they’ve never done me any harm…I’ve always believed them to be lucky birds and quite faxinating. Its nice to see their chick’s grow and fledge.

  22. Hi. I watch 2 or 3 magpies on the roofs opposite my house most days. I think they are gorgeous looking birds. I do feel a sense of anxiety if I only see one (which is rare). They don’t do any harm and always seem content. Reading some of your comments has helped me understand this lovely bird.

  23. We see lots of magpies every morning on the way to work and I always sing the magpie song. I think they nice looking birds. I have never been superstitious about any birds.

  24. I can’t remember where I got it from, but to cancel the bad luck associated with seeing a lone magpie I point the horns of the devil at it (fore finger and pinkie) and say ‘Devil, devil, I defy thee!’. It always seemed more spirited than placatory and forelock pulling.
    Be it said, I love magpies! I love that they love each other and they hold funerals for dead friends and relatives. It is very touching. And their intelligence and sense of humour is so attractive.

  25. Yesterday I heard a lot of painful cawing and fluttering coming from a small glade next to my house I opened the door to see a large magpie attacking a slimmer one, I waved my arms and called out to stop the larger, this was successful he/ she flew off but to my surprise the slimmer one flew in my house. After sitting on the kitchen counter then flying to the dinning room window and settling before it pecking I decided it wanted to leave. Unsuccessful in gentle clasping it to free it, it flew to the living room and settled on a large piece of stained glass by the window. I sat opposite and just waited, talked to it softly he faced me. I walked over slowly talking and gently picked him up and put him outside. Within 15mins the pitiful cawing and cries returned I opened my window, back he came and sat on the stained glass. I did nothing. About 20 minutes later after walking up and down he flew past me and went out the window. A while later I heard it in the distance, such painful screeching. Next day I found a dead magpie on the pavement, so sad. I took my dog over the fields and found yet another dead. Is this I wonder because they pair for life, the older males fight off the younger males? An unusual twist is that I rung my daughter when the magpie was in the house the second time and she said , ‘ that is creepy mum I am reading a book right now
    about this boy who found a magpie when young and he revisits with gifts’

    1. Something similar happened to me once. I was in bed asleep one morning and was awoken because I could hear tapping on my window. It didn’t stop so I had to investigate. I pulled back the curtain to see a magpie hanging upside down tapping at the top of my window. It didn’t appear to be catching nor eating insects. It observed and looked at me, and continued for a few more moments before flying off!

      1. Woah, so the Magpie bit the pidgeons’ head off? Like with its beak? If so, that’s crazy! And they can be very territorial!

  26. I absolutely love the magpie but i am instantly filled with dread when i see just one. I recently had a miscarriage and there is just one magpie that sits on my wall😭 it was there just before my miscarriage and continues to sit there still. Maybe i should offer it something shiny it might bring its wife?

  27. Woken by tapping on the mezzanine windows. Looked to see not one but two magpies, one on each sill. Beautiful birds, their smart black-and-white jackets set off by a slate-blue sheen on their backs. Felt very fortunate that they stayed, hopping and tapping, for another minute before flying away. I guess they were feeding on insects?

  28. Hi ,
    In Ireland we spit and touch green if we see a lone magpie, to get rid of the bad luck .

  29. 7.20 pm Monday June 1st looking out of my bedroom window,I have just counted 20 Magpies sitting on the roof & chimney pot of the house across the road . What an amazing sight.
    June Farnborough , Hants

  30. Hi there,

    So I saw 3 magpies this morning but not at the same time, I would say 1 hour between them. Does this mean I’ll have 3 sorrows 😔😔? Thank you x

  31. I kept seeing 1 Magpie throughout my pregnancy and my mother in law died 2 days after I gave birth. I also saw 3 when I was expecting a baby girl

    1. Me too! I love their comical walk, and seeing them at their mass meetings in the Spring.

    2. The full rhyme was 1 for sorrow,2 for mirth,3 for a wedding,4 for a birth,5 for silver,6 for gold,7 for a secret never to be told,8 for heaven,9 for hell,10 for the devils own cell! Personally I use to fear one on its own would bring bad luck however now I realise that it’s mate is usually guarding its nest,whils mate hunting etc,whatever ya thoughts they are beautiful looking bird!

  32. Every time I have encountered a Maggie I have unfortunately learned of a death of a close relative. This morning a magpie flew into our conservatory and tried to come into the house it has filled me with dread as my husband has not been well help😢😢😢

  33. I think Magpies are lovely birds – I dont believe in supersition – rather that I ‘ve got eyes to see these beautiful bird . People should believe their eyes andnot listen to daft rumours !! I often have a mass of them when the young ones arrive – sometimes as many as 20 !!

  34. Reading into the history of Magpies and the church rather indicates that the church strove to destroy a belief from a previous religion and mendaciously created a story . Rather like Mary of Magda being a prostitute

  35. Someone once left 13 dead magpies in a bag on the bonnet of my car.
    Does anyone know the significance of this

    1. I would think with 13 being unlucky and 13 single magpies with a single denomination meaning bad luck, you had upset somebody with strong superstitions.
      Find out who it was and hire a hitman to end them.

      1. My grandmother taught me a different version;
        One for sorrow
        Two for mirth
        Three for a letter
        Four for a birth
        Five for silver
        Six for gold
        Seven for a secret never to be told…

    2. A lot of human beings are nasty idiots, this is just evidence of one more, mourn the poor innocent magpies and forget the idiot.

      1. I have been seeing a single magpie recently a lot and because of the superstition linked to it I always salute the one I see alone but then often I will see two or more interesting to read others views on it

  36. I met one magpie, two Robins and a orange black butterfly plus a white butterfly. All in one day. Just going through a break up after 7 years I really don’t want anymore bad luck,

  37. I love to see !afford whether three or one i am Irish and I never could understand why an 🐦 magpie or robin could cause bad luck

  38. I always greet magpies “good morning/afternoon Mr Magpie, I hope you and yours are well?”. Passed on from my mum, respect rather than superstition.

  39. I have a nest of magpies living in the trees in my garden.i love them there colour and inquisitiveness. Some times there are 5 or more flying around. Had no problem with them so far. Nature’s is always welcome In my garden.

    1. At last , a voice of reason , we think they are great . A British Parrot with lovely colours !

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *