09 February 2014

I first encountered the word pica when learning paediatrics. It is used for describing the childish habit of children to eat unsuitable food, such as soil, earthworms and paint flakes. It is also the name of a member of the large family of crows - the magpie, Pica pica.
For many people, who dislike its lifestyle, this bird is unpopular. I rather like them for, despite their pied plumage, they are colourful, characterful birds. If you handle a live magpie what appears to be black is a mass of iridescent blues and greens; the white is just plain white. We used to see masses of them when we lived in Warwickshire, here in Highland Perthshire they are rarities. In Edinburgh, the Central Belt and along much of the east coast they are seen more frequently.
They get their scientific name for picking up unconsidered trifles; some, as children do, they eat, some they hide away. Many members of the crow family steal things (remember the Rev Richard Barham’s The Jackdaw of Rheims and Rossini’s overture The Thieving Magpie). This propensity for kleptomania accompanied by paranoia is illustrated by the way Pica builds its nest. Magpies love eggs and they steal zealously. It is often said one should set a thief to catch a thief and the magpie illustrates this perfectly.
They build their nests with a protective dome of thorns. I remember this from my early teens (there was no law against bird-nesting then) when I carried a magpie’s egg in my mouth from high in a tree. The climb was less difficult than infiltrating my hand through the protective canopy of the nest. I asked my father why the magpies built this way and he told me it was to keep other birds from stealing their eggs.
Consider the implications of this behaviour. Magpies have learned that other creatures eat eggs and so have developed defensive practices. This implies some form of reasoning ability and, in turn, intelligence. In fact the crow family, the Corvidae, are so renowned for their intelligence that some biologists predict that when man is eventually extinct they will take over his position as boss of the planet.
Now that Political Correctness has gone mad we have to be careful in our use of words to describe our fellows. Anything suggesting criticism of race, creed or even gender is unacceptable but we still rank people by intelligence - that’s what all those exams from primary school to university are all about and they control every aspect of our lives. Though it is not permissible to comment on a persons colour it is acceptable, if impolite, to say someone is dim or brilliant.
So just spare a thought for the hated magpie; There is more intelligence per gram of brain there than in many professors. Recently we have had a celebrated murder trial deeply concerned with race. If we must classify our fellows, who in Britain become daily more diversified, let us stick to intelligence where, given similar opportunity, black equals white.
Three cheers for the magpie!

   Robin Hull



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