The Urban Countryside – The Magpie

by Albert Nolan


While many species of birds are welcome visitors to our gardens the Magpie unfair reputation as just a nest thief makes his stay less certain. Like all members of the crow family these are highly intelligent and adaptable birds. I have always liked Magpies and when I was growing up a pair built their nest each year in a Hawthorn tree bordering a neighbour’s garden. We were often regaled with stories of how they collected shiny objects including watches but we could never make it past the tangle of thorns and brambles to see if there were any treasures lurking in the nest.

Magpies are recent arrivals to Ireland and were first recorded at the beginning of the seventeenth century in Wexford. They are now found throughout the country, all though urban Magpies still retain their wariness around humans. I have often observed this behavior in town parks where Magpies keep well away from people while other birds approach begging for food.

Part of the reason for their success is their diet that varies from insects, seeds, kitchen scraps, fruit and carrion. Yes they do take a small number of nestlings but so do other species of birds and animals. While this can be upsetting for people it is part of the natural cycle of life. One of the biggest threat to our song birds is habitat lose for example the removal of native hedgerows and domestic and feral cats also kill thousands of chicks each year

Their omnivore and opportunist nature allows them to exploit new food sources. This was evident during the long harsh winter a few years ago. The kids spotted a fox with a sore leg in the garden. He must have been desperate with the hungry and the kids threw food out the window for him. He picked up the first piece and wisely buried it in a corner of the garden. Unfortunately for the fox a Magpie had been watching from a nearby tree and as soon as the coast was clear he flew down and grabbed a meal that would have keep him alive for another few day at least. This raises the intriguing question do Magpies in time of hardship follow predators like foxes to pick up scraps of food? Any comment welcome.

The nest is an untidy jumble of sticks sometimes lined with a grass and one brood is raised during the year. Magpies are brave and diligent parents and will mob predators to protect their young. They have a loud harsh call and this alerts other species that there is danger in the area.

Magpies have a rich folklore surrounding them and every schoolboy and girl would have heard the following rhyme. One for sorrow, two for joy, three for girl, four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret never to be told, eight for a wish, nine for a kiss, ten for a bird that’s best to miss. The rain splashes against the window as I wearily stretch and get ready to collect the kids from school. I must have seen seven Magpies six years ago as I ended up with twins a beautiful boy and girl. As I lock the door of the house I glance cautiously around making sure there are no groups of Magpies hanging about.

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