Daily Bulletin

The Conversation

  • Written by The Conversation
imageStefan Berndtsson, CC BY

There’s a famous British nursery rhyme about how many magpies one sees in a day. It begins: “One for sorrow, two for joy …"

The whole verse is strangely ambiguous, the lines alternating between good and evil as if we cannot make up our minds about this familiar bird. The rhyme ends with 13 magpies: “… beware it’s the devil himself.”

However I’ve got a soft spot for them. Perhaps I’m influenced by my local football team, Newcastle United, being nicknamed the magpies on account of their black and white stripes. Although the team seems wholly unable to acquire anything silver or glittery, unlike its feathered namesakes.

Magpies are commonplace in my city. Adults fuss and clatter as they tweak their twig nests, gangs of “teenage” birds loiter on park benches, inquisitive individuals tug at TV aerials or pry through the backyards tracking the fate of smaller birds. They have flourished in the UK in the past few decades, and their population trebled between 1970 to 1990 and has stabilised since then. But such a gaudy and notorious species was bound to attract public ire, especially as their reputation has been fed by centuries of superstition.

The stuff of superstition

Magpies, wherever they live, haunt folklore. Sometimes they appear as a sinister omen, but equally often as a friend. In the UK, a lone magpie is considered especially ominous and it is commonplace to voice a respectful enquiry as to the health of its wife and children. Conversely in China and Korea magpies are seen as bringing good luck.

imageIn one famous Chinese folk tale a flock of magpies reunite two lovers for one day each year.Summer Palace, Beijing

The magpies of Europe seem to have been caught up with the dark reputation of their blacker feathered relatives, the crows and ravens. Shakespeare flings them into the supernatural mix of Macbeth as “maggot-pies”, a grim name, but likely to be a corruption of older words, “mag” for chatter and “pie” for black and white.

Except that they are not black, but an iridescent deep green with flashes of slick petrol blue and purple. Their stubby wings and long tail fan into art deco-like rays, and the whole colour scheme has a 1920s and 30s style and glittery appeal.

imageMagpies have a touch of the dandy highwayman.Stefan Berndtsson, CC BY

They stroll and swagger, peer and prod. Compare one in flight to artists’ impressions of proto-bird Archaeopteryx and there is a striking similarity. Many palaeontologists refer to the T. rex and Velociraptor as “non-avian dinosaurs”. However, if you watch a magpie at its most confident, on the hunt, you’ll see the link between these modern aviators and those ancient carnivores.

Their malevolent reputation is also associated with an eye for a glittery trinket, thieves who will steal to decorate their nests. Note the fecklessness of this: they aren’t even stealing to make a living, but purely for vanity. “Thieving magpie” is a common insult.

But a study published last year in the journal Animal Cognition seems to discredit this behaviour. Researchers found no evidence magpies were attracted to shiny objects offered to them, indeed the birds shunned the gifts. Instead they had “neophobia”, the researchers claimed; the birds were afraid of the unfamiliar, wary of the baubles. However, once you discover that the items on offer were metal screws and aluminium foil you could understand why any self-respecting jewel thief would turn up their beak at tawdry items of DIY hardware.

imagePica Pica magpie.Danny Chapman/flickr, CC BY

It is the magpie’s misfortune to have been swept up in the culture wars around birds of prey. The decline of sparrows, starlings and other smaller garden birds in recent decades and the simultaneous rise of the magpie and other predators such as sparrowhawks have been linked by campaign groups such as Song Bird Survival, with calls for culls of raptors and crows to help maintain a natural balance.

Conservation groups such as the RSPB have repeatedly pointed out the lack of evidence of impacts and asked why such campaign groups are so closely allied to hunting and shooting organisations. A recent review of 42 studies showed magpies and crows have very little impact and were unlikely to limit bird populations.

The effort and expense of controlling their numbers was disproportionate to the limited gains, done more because crows and magpies are conspicuous, the easy scapegoats of legend.

Mike Jeffries does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

Authors: The Conversation

Read more http://theconversation.com/in-defence-of-magpies-the-bird-worlds-bad-boy-is-simply-misunderstood-38246

Writers Wanted

Australia's states have been forced to go it alone on renewable energy, but it's a risky strategy


The missing middle: puberty is a critical time at school, so why aren’t we investing in it more?


A Beginner’s Guide To Caring For Your Lawn


The Conversation


Prime Minister Interview with Ben Fordham, 2GB

BEN FORDHAM: Scott Morrison, good morning to you.    PRIME MINISTER: Good morning, Ben. How are you?    FORDHAM: Good. How many days have you got to go?   PRIME MINISTER: I've got another we...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Prime Minister Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News

KIERAN GILBERT: Kieran Gilbert here with you and the Prime Minister joins me. Prime Minister, thanks so much for your time.  PRIME MINISTER: G'day Kieran.  GILBERT: An assumption a vaccine is ...

Daily Bulletin - avatar Daily Bulletin

Did BLM Really Change the US Police Work?

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has proven that the power of the state rests in the hands of the people it governs. Following the death of 46-year-old black American George Floyd in a case of ...

a Guest Writer - avatar a Guest Writer

Business News

Nisbets’ Collab with The Lobby is Showing the Sexy Side of Hospitality Supply

Hospitality supply services might not immediately make you think ‘sexy’. But when a barkeep in a moodily lit bar holds up the perfectly formed juniper gin balloon or catches the light in the edg...

The Atticism - avatar The Atticism

Buy Instagram Followers And Likes Now

Do you like to buy followers on Instagram? Just give a simple Google search on the internet, and there will be an abounding of seeking outcomes full of businesses offering such services. But, th...

News Co - avatar News Co

Cybersecurity data means nothing to business leaders without context

Top business leaders are starting to realise the widespread impact a cyberattack can have on a business. Unfortunately, according to a study by Forrester Consulting commissioned by Tenable, some...

Scott McKinnel, ANZ Country Manager, Tenable - avatar Scott McKinnel, ANZ Country Manager, Tenable

News Co Media Group

Content & Technology Connecting Global Audiences

More Information - Less Opinion