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insect life
song birds
folk lore
bad reputation
The Magpie A Social Bird With A Bad Reputation
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The Magpie ‘One for sorrow two for joy’ A social bird with a bad reputation

You either love them or hate them and you certainly can’t miss this striking black and white member of the crow family. The large dominant and aggressive Magpie can be seen anywhere in town or country. They are one of the ‘accused’ of the bird world, egg stealers, blamed for the decline in song birds, blamed by folk lore, for theft and vandalism across the country side and our towns. Despite this I have a certain respect for this character full species. Maybe it comes from a childhood steeped in Northern England’s superstitions that I am always prompted to say “Good morning Mr Magpie” when I see one. My mum always said you should do, “for good luck “and I suppose you always do what your mum tells you!

Respect them or detest them, you have just got to admire their raw intelligence and opportunistic spirit. When I plying my bird table with seed mix they are on the scene within minutes, marauding and hassling and scattering the ever present, Great and Blue Tits, Robins and even Jackdaws.

They are a highly successful species and apart from man they have few predators. Hard winters may even help them when despite less insect life less hardy animals and birds succumb. Despite legal control the Magpie has increased in number significantly, numbers trebled from 1970-90 and then stabilised.

Always, alert and ever suspicious of man Magpies have learnt to be ever wary as they are legally controlled in England and Wales by trapping and shooting. They appear to be keenly aware of human presence, always vigilant when humans are near. I always feel their watchful eye even when I am at a considerable distance away.

Magpies are social of birds roosting in winter at traditional sites sometimes in their hundreds. The roost I regularly watch on my local patch often holds up to 140 birds. They start coming into a thin strip of riverside Willow and Aspen just before dusk. Small groups perch up or group on the ground some distance away in pre-roost sites on trees and hedges. They appear to be checking things out, confirming the safety of the roost site, before small groups or single birds begin to fly in. At first they usually perch up, often for a considerable time in the tops of the roost trees, before dropping quietly into deeper cover to settle for the night.

The slightest disturbance will start this roost up in an incessant, agitated, argumentative cackle and bursts of activity. There appears to be a hierarchical structure to these gatherings, with higher ranking birds in the central roost and less-rated and perhaps non-breeding birds on the fringes of the roost and even in outlying bushes. My favourite collective noun for Magpies, at least at roost time has to be an ‘agitation’. A passing dog walker unaware of them can send them up into a frenzy of apprehension. It’s a staggering sight to see a hundred and forty birds, splashed across the tree line like a black and white abstract Jackson Pollock painting, glimmering in the deepening gloom of the winter twilight; with an accompanying soundtrack of machine-gun like calls.

They will also gather in social groups at other times that have become known as ‘Parliaments’. Magpies will sometimes meet on the ground and often form into circles, almost like outdoor discussion groups. On my local patch I recently saw a group of nineteen Magpies encircle a fox hunting on a rabbit warren in the early evening. The birds seemed to be entrapping and threatening the Fox taunting it from a safe distance; trying to out-fox it perhaps. The Fox seemed overawed, with tail well down and sulkily prowling about. The Magpies moved confidently to and fro along the circumference they had formed, rarely breaking the circle. They kept the fox enclosed for about 5 minutes before he broke off and skulked away looking quite disorientated.

I don’t think there is much a Magpie won’t eat they are a great ‘clean-up species’ taking, food scraps, seed, invertebrates and of course they are regularly seen by our highways feasting on eviscerated creatures.

Despite lots of anecdotal evidence, there is little scientific evidence that Magpies are a major conservation threat to songbirds. Yes, they do take fledgling birds and eggs and this aspect of nature in the raw, can be distressing to witness. Research suggests that despite their rapid increase in number they are not a significant threat to song birds, but play a normal part in the natural food chain. Song bird numbers appear to be more threatened by the domestic cat and a lack of suitable food and habitat than avian predation.

Fact File


Latin name: Pica Pica

Size: length 45cm wing span: 56cm

Weight: male 240g female 200g

Habitat: open woods, scrub fields and towns

Food: invertebrates especially beetles, seed, fruit, carrion, occasionally small vertebrates

Calls: best known call, a harsh rattling ‘cha-cha-cha’ often tailing off

BTO Conservation status: green no concern

European Population: summer 6.5 million to 14 million pairs

UK breeding population: 590,000 territories in 2000

Snapshot: Magpies have featured in anti-theft TV commercials, Rossini based an opera on them, ‘The Thieving Magpie’ and in medieval paintings they often appear as a single bird on the gallows ‘one for sorrow’.

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