The European Magpie (Pica pica) is a resident breeding bird throughout Europe, much of Asia, and northwest Africa. It is one of several birds in the crow family named as magpies, and belongs to the Holarctic radiation of "monochrome" magpies.
In Europe, "Magpie" is used by English speakers as a synonym for the European Magpie; it is the only magpie in Europe outside the Iberian Peninsula.
Description and systematics
The European Magpie is in length. Its head, neck and breast are glossy black with a metallic green and violet sheen; the belly and scapulars (shoulder feathers) are pure white; the wings are black glossed with green or purple, and the primaries have white inner webs, conspicuous when the wing is open. The graduated tail is black, shot with bronze-green and other iridescent colours. The legs and bill are black.
The young resemble the adults, but are at first without much of the gloss on the sooty plumage. The male is slightly larger than the female.
There are numerous subspecies. The northwest African race differs in having a patch of bare skin around the eye and no white patch on the rump, and the southwest Arabian race differs in being smaller, with dull black plumage lacking iridescent tones, and minimal white in the wings. The Siberian races have more extensive white in the wings, and brilliant green iridescence; Korean birds have a purple gloss instead and relatively longer wings and a shorter tail.
Analysis of mtDNA sequences has indicated that the Korean race, P. pica sericea, is very distinct from the other Eurasian forms, and may be a separate species. The North American Black-billed Magpie which looks almost identical to the Eurasian form and was previously considered conspecific is genetically closer to the Yellow-billed Magpie. The main Eurasian lineages of this astoundingly variable species have not been sufficiently sampled to clarify the status of such forms as the northwest African race P. p. mauretanica and the southwest Arabian race P. p. asirensis, which could also be distinct species.
A larger palaeosubspecies of the European Magpie was described as Pica pica major.
Ecology and behavior
The strikingly pied plumage and long , graduated tail, as well as its loud, harsh chatter, prevent confusion with any other species. In the open country the Magpie commands attention as one, two, three or more birds, with rapidly moving, apparently short wings, fly in succession, chattering as they pass. When the bird alights the long tail is at once elevated and is carefully carried clear of the ground.
Like other corvids, such as crows, the Magpie's usual gait is a walk, but when attracted by food or any special object it hops quickly sideways with wings just open. The fondness of all its family for bright objects is well known.
No animal food comes amiss to the Magpie; young birds and eggs, small mammals and insects are devoured, but acorns, grain and other vegetable substances are not despised.
In country areas the bird, owing to persecution, is often shy, but in suburban areas it is common. Indeed, where it is not molested it courts rather than avoids the vicinity of humans. Also, it is known to team up in bands of two or more to "tease" cats, i.e. launch feigned attacks on the animals, perhaps as a general reaction against the cat as predator and egg thief.
In winter the Magpie becomes gregarious, wandering and feeding in small parties or flocks, and gathering at a common rendezvous to roost at night. Early in the year large numbers collect together for mating. Charles Darwin refers to these congregations as "marriage meetings".
The magpie has been observed taking small songbirds down, in flight, a behaviour once reserved only for birds of prey.
The magpie is one of a small number of species capable of recognizing itself in a mirror.
Magpies are territorial and stay in their territory all year, even in north of the species range. The pairs are monogamous, and remain together for the duration of their lives. Should one of the two die, the widow or widower will find a new partner from the stock of yearlings.
The mating takes place in spring. In the courtship display, the males rapidly raise and depress their head feathers, uplift, open and close their tails like fans, and call in soft tones quite distinct from their usual chatter. In the display the loose feathers of the flanks are brought over and the primaries, and the patch on the shoulders is spread so as to make the white conspicuous, presumably to attract the female eye. Short buoyant flights and chases are part of the courtship.
Tall trees are selected by the Magpie for its bulky nest; it is firmly attached to a central fork in the upper branches. The framework of the sticks is cemented with earth and clay. and a lining of the same material is covered with fine roots; above is a stout, though loosely, built dome of prickly branches with one well-concealed entrance. When the leaves fall these huge nests are plainly visible. Where trees are scarce, and even in well-wooded country, nests are at times built in bushes and hedgerows.
The eggs, small for the size of the bird, number from five to eight, and as many as ten are recorded; they show much variation in ground and marking, but a usual type is blue-green with close specks and spots of brown and grey. They are laid in April, and only one brood is reared unless disaster overtakes the first clutch.
Magpie in culture
The Magpie is common in European folklore, with multiple superstitions surrounding it. Generally speaking, the bird is associated with unhappiness and trouble. This may be because of its well known tendency to "steal" shiny objects, as well as its harsh, chittering call.
- In Britain and Ireland, there are a number of superstitions regarding magpies
- *A single magpie is associated with bad luck (see rhymes below)
- *One should make sure to greet magpies when they are encountered in order to either allay bad luck or encourage good luck as related to the number of birds and therefore their place in the Magpie poem. Common greetings include "Hello Mr Magpie" "How is your wife/where is your wife?", "Good Morning/Evening Sir" and other marks of respect.
- *Upon seeing a lone magpie one should repeat the words "I defy thee" seven times.
- *On seeing a lone magpie one should pinch the person they are walking with, if they are alone they are to pinch themselves.
- *If a lone Magpie is seen, one should salute it to show you respect it. This formality can be forgone if the Magpie looks directly in your eyes, which shows it respects you.
- In the 19th century book, A Guide to the Scientific Knowledge of Things Familiar, a proverb concerning magpies is recited: "A single magpie in spring, foul weather will bring". The book further explains that this superstition arises from the habits of pairs of magpies to forage together only when the weather is fine.
- In Norway, a magpie is considered cunning and thievish, sometimes wicked, but a playful and loud bird is also bringer of good weather.
- An old English folk tale states that when Jesus was crucified on the cross, all of the world's birds wept and sang to comfort him in his agony. The only exception was the magpie, and for this, it is forever cursed.
- In Scotland, a Magpie near the window of the house foretells death.
- In Scottish folklore, (in a story possibly related to the above) magpies were long reviled for allegedly carrying a drop of Satan's blood under their tongues.
- In both Italian and French folklore, magpies' penchant for picking up shiny items is thought to be particularly directed towards precious ones. Rossini's opera La gazza ladra and the The Adventures of Tintin comic Les Bijoux de la Castafiore are based on this theme.
- In German and Swedish folklore the magpie is also seen as a thief.
- In the Middle Ages and during the witch-hunts in Europe, the bird was considered to be connected with witchcraft - just like crows, ravens and black cats.
- In China, instead of being a sign of misfortune, European magpie is considered to be a lucky sign. The name is literally "happiness magpie."（喜鹊）
The Magpie rhyme
In Britain and Ireland a widespread traditional rhyme records the myth (it is not clear whether it has been seriously believed) that seeing magpies predicts the future, depending on how many are seen. There are many regional variations on the rhyme, which means that it is impossible to give a definitive version.
- 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.
In Ireland, it is common to recite "Five for a wedding".
(This particular version is used in the Counting Crows song "A Murder of One.")
- One for sorrow
- Two for mirth
- Three for a funeral
- Four for a birth
- Five for heaven
- Six for hell
- Seven's the Devil his own sel'
Sometimes (but rarely), three extra lines are added:
- Eight for a wish
- Nine for a kiss
- Ten for a bird that you won't want to miss.
- Eight for a wish
- Nine for a kiss
- Ten for a time of Joyous Bliss
as the former is believed to have been written especially for the television show's credits.
In Yorkshire the Magpie Rhyme is as follows:
- One for Sorrow
- Two for Joy
- Three for a Girl
- Four for a Boy
- Five for Silver
- Six for Gold
- Seven for a tale never to be told
- Eight you Live
- Nine you Die
- Ten you eat a bogey pie!
- A British children's TV show called Magpie featured a theme song based on the "one for sorrow" rhyme, and featured a large cartoon Magpie as its mascot or logo.
- Two English football clubs, Notts County and Newcastle United are nicknamed "The Magpies" due to their black and white striped playing kits. Notts County's club crest depicts a football on which perch two magpies.
- The magpie made its appearance in cartoons in the form of two animated birds named Heckle and Jeckle.
- A magpie named Snipes with a snobbish disposition is a main character in the film Rock-A-Doodle.
- La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) is an opera in two acts by Gioachino Rossini. The very distinct overture is well known, and has been used by the Scottish band Marillion. A magpie with a ring in its beak is depicted on several of the band's early albums.
- Musician Patrick Wolf's song 'Magpie', found on The Magic Position, utilizes a version of the magpie rhyme and also references its thieving ways.
- In Gerald Durrell's book My Family and Other Animals, the author tells of how he had two of the birds that he called the "Magenpies".
Notes and References
- Database entry includes justification for why this species is of least concern
- Lee, Sang-im; Parr, Cynthia S.; Hwang, Youna; Mindell, David P. & Choe, J. C. (2003): Phylogeny of magpies (genus Pica) inferred from mtDNA data. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 29: 250-257. PDF fulltext
- Madge, Steve & Burn, Hilary (1994): Crows and jays: a guide to the crows, jays and magpies of the world A&C Black, London. ISBN 0-7136-3999-7