13 July 2013

I never thought when I moved to Perthshire from Warwickshire that I would miss magpies. They were so common in the Midlands that we quite often saw ‘seven for a secret that’s never been told’ and ‘one for sorrow, two for joy’ were regular in the garden. In Scotland in the nineties they were rare outside the Central Belt with a few along the fertile crescent along the east coast as far north as Inverness. This decline probably resulted from persecution for their predation on game birds. Since then, though still unusual, they are more frequent.
I suppose we under regard the commonplace; though I have always loved house sparrows, those cheeky cockney birds that flourished in the horsy days of Victorian London. They flourished on a diet shed from nosebags and what fell from the luxuriant restaurant situated at the back end of a horse. In the last years of the twentieth century sparrows went into sharp decline and really became quite rare (though there was always a little enclave round the Gushat in Strathtay where old houses provided eaves for nesting). Now they are coming back; so, too, are the magpies.
To the scientist magpies rejoice in the Linnaean name of Pica pica. To a doctor the word ‘pica’ recalls the curious habit in children of eating such strange things as earthworms, bits of plastic and flaking paint. Magpies have similar habits of collecting bright objects, not necessarily to eat, but just out of fascination. I have a similar tendency which often reaches a pinnacle of desire when I visit my friend Malcolm Appleby‘s workshop! Many will remember from schooldays Richard Barham’s poem The Jackdaw of Rheims who got into trouble for stealing a Cardinal’s ring. Rossini immortalised it as La gazza ladra, the thieving magpie, with its wonderfully joyous overture. In Gaelic the bird is Pioghad - a talkative young woman (the Gaelic persists in place names such as Torphichen - from torr phigeainn the magpie hillock) and in Scottish mythology eating the leg of a magpie was considered a cure for one bewitched. 
To the casual eye magpies, as the name suggests, are black and white. This is an illusion for, like blackcock, they are all sorts of iridescent purples and greens against a snowy white of uncharacteristic honesty. As the Cardinal discovered, they are great thieves stealing eggs and chicks of other birds. It is said that to catch a thief one should employ another robber. Larcenous magpies build a great dome of thorns above their nests to discourage thievery in other bird species. It is this behaviour which gives the bird such a bad name. Legend tells us that the woodpigeon took lessons in nest building from the magpie; before the teacher was half way through the pigeon sang out ‘that’ll do-ooo’ and forever afterwards has built a ramshackle nest compared with the magpie’s.
But the reason I miss them, apart from a formerly unnoticed beauty, is their character of joyful, haughty, pride and gossipy nature. I once visited a castle in Portugal where the owner was so infuriated by his gossiping servants chatting about his love-life that he covered his ceilings with painted magpies to remind his staff to hold their tongues: talkative young women indeed!
However, like the house sparrow they are staging a comeback. Magpies, once a rarity in Perthshire, can now be seen quite often in Perth and even on occasion in Dunkeld. In the first five months of 2013 I have records of  four sightings in Perthshire compared with one in the whole of 2012. Some people regret this recovery, castigating them as pests much as they do sparrowhawks. Probably such people regard me as a pest too, for liking them. However no matter how much we ascribe human qualities to sparrows, sparrowhawks and magpies they are all part of the wonderful, colourful world of birds.
In these complex days of financial austerity compounded by human greed we should ’take delight in simple things’ such as sparrows and even the mischievous magpies, beloved of poets and musicians, because they enrich both our language and culture. I think I am right to miss them.

Robin Hull

 

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