One for sorrow

Two for joy

Three for a girl

Four for a boy

Five for silver

Six for gold

Seven for a story

Yet to be told

The same this spring as last: I lost count of the number of times I looked down the garden, spotted that pair of magpies on the lower lawn, saw them moving in and out of the yew trees on the right and determined to get down there with the 20-bore on behalf of the songbirds. In due course only one magpie would be seen, a sign that its mate was incubating, but having sidled down through the trees on a couple of occasions and stood for an hour awaiting movement, I never did spot the nest or birds. Again I decided I would have to wait until parents and young worked the garden nearer the house, and use the air rifle. I took three juveniles last year.

Yet I am doing the songbirds no particular favour, it seems. Magpies may be condemned for their springtime depredations of nests and young, but when the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) analysed 35 years of monitoring records, it found that songbird populations were no different in areas where magpies abounded than those where they were sparse. BTO?s conclusion was that increased numbers did not cause a decline: songbirds? status was affected more by depleted supplies and habitat change.

Perhaps it is time to confess a grudging admiration for a bird of such striking appearance, dashing style and highly intelligent response to circumstance. Recently I saw one working through the branches in pursuit of a grey squirrel, the rodent turning back several times with a brief menacing gesture but not deterring the bird from its pestering. Anything that harries greys can?t be all bad.

And I cannot fault this description by 19th-century Scottish keeper and naturalist Tom Speedy: The magpie is one of the most expert, genteel and well-dressed of thieves? Few British birds possess such a rich glow of colour, the brilliancy of the plumage on the tail and wings being of metallic splendour, the bird being gay alike in nature and plumage. Then again, Speedy was a pragmatist who observed that if a nesting female magpie was killed, the male soon found another mate, affording extra opportunity. He once killed six off the same nest within seven days.

Speedy witnessed heavy magpie depredation of pheasant and partridge eggs and young. Nothing is more annoying to a keeper than when he knows of a pheasant?s nest, and on going his rounds takes a keek to see that she is sitting all right, but finds the nest empty. This I have frequently experienced? Where these birds [magpies] are allowed to harbour, it must be a very closely concealed pheasant?s nest if it escapes their vigilance.

The Speedy generation hit the magpie hard. Common and plentiful until the middle of the 19th century and popular with farmers because of its predation of insects and rodents, the development of game rearing and shooting made magpies the keeper?s enemy. Numbers were severely reduced and only after World War II did they start to recover. Between 1970 and 1990, the UK population tripled and is now described as stable, though the magpie?s regular appearance on roadsides and in gardens ? a habitat now more friendly than the countryside, where game Shots still give it no quarter ? creates an impression that it is proliferating.

Phrase and fable

The word ?magpie? is said to be derived partly from ?Margaret?, the name traditionally denoting innocence and meekness, hardly the bird?s nature, but in dialect the word ?mag? meant to chatter or tease, and in Scotland ?magg? meant theft. ?Pie? derives from the bird?s pied or two-tone appearance, but may also be a contraction of its Latin name, Pica pica. In medieval times it was called the magot-pie, a reference found in Macbeth, Act Three.

The bird shares with other corvids a liking for shiny objects, an attraction that gives us the tale of the French maidservant executed for the theft of a ring, later found in a magpie?s nest, and immortalised by Rossini. The magpie has a longstanding place in the annals of superstition. Early Christians saw it as a symbol of dissipation and vanity, and held it cursed among the crow tribe for not wearing completely black plumage in mourning after the Crucifixion. Devout Scots believed the bird carried a drop of the Devil?s blood under its tongue. In Somerset, country folk carried an onion as protection against the influence of crows and magpies, and tipped their hats if they encountered them. English people were prone to cross themselves and raise their hats upon seeing magpies, intoning: ?Devil, Devil, I defy thee!? A Yorkshirewoman I know still calls out to solitary magpies: ?Hello Jack, how?s your brother??

At one time, ?magpie? was the derogatory name for an Anglican bishop. In France, evil priests were thought to be reincarnated as crows, and evil nuns as magpies. Among the Native American Blackfoot people the magpie had shamanic qualities and appears in the legend of the Buffalo Dance. But the bird fared better in the Far East: in China and Korea it presaged joy and fortune, its chattering a prelude to the arrival of good news and guests.

According to the EC Birds Directive, the magpie is fully protected throughout Europe, but the UK derogated from this ruling: under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act the bird can be killed in order to protect crops and livestock, preserve public health or conserve other wild birds. Magpies may be shot for site-specific control purposes and it is legal to shoot out a nest even when it is in use, though it must be checked in case it has been occupied by another species ? the domed construction is favoured by long-eared owls, for instance.

A magpie has a typical territory of 12 acres, but in some areas up to 60 per cent do not breed for want of suitable nest sites, the unattached birds often forming a sizeable tiding. With an average of six eggs laid, incubation takes between 18 and 19 days, the male feeding the female on the nest. Both feed the young, fledging takes up to 30 days and the brood are fed for four weeks after leaving the nest. The mortality rate among the young is high, average life expectancy is put at three years, but the oldest recorded bird died in its 22nd year.