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By Dyane Silvester

We all know that magpies are bad luck, don't we?

Or is that only one magpie? Well, that all depends on which version of the rhyme you learned as a child. Perhaps it's not bad luck after all, so long as you salute him. We are all familiar with his spectacular black and white plumage, and chattering cry. He is often disliked, for a variety of reasons, but are we dismissing too easily a remarkable creature?

Being of the corvid (crow) family, magpies are actually very intelligent and take part in quite complex social rituals. The magpie is the only non-mammal to have been shown to recognise itself in a mirror – and not think that the image is another bird – this a benchmark of animal intelligence testing. It has also learned to take advantage of the resources provided (usually inadvertently) by humans. Like many other corvids it will eat almost anything so your fruit or nut trees, strawberry patch, and even peas and beans, are vulnerable. Even without such easy resources, the magpie will take small creatures such as other young birds and insects, as well as eggs or carrion so, as well as playing an important role in recycling, they may also, sadly, be contributing to the decline of songbirds. Magpies have even been reported to take not just the eggs, but birds too, although generally when there is no easier food to be had. They will also hoard food in holes in the ground – you might see them this time of year stashing nuts or seeds.

Magpies are, however, good parents: they are very territorial and build a roofed nest of sticks and mud usually high in a tree. They typically lay five to seven eggs and will only raise one brood each year; the fledglings stay with their parents until the following spring. Early in the season you will see magpies in large groups – little danger of a single one there! – when they gather for ‘magpie marriages’ to enable unattached birds to find a mate. So, although far from perfect, they are not all bad either!

Magpies are almost universally considered unlucky and there are various myths about them: in Scotland, a magpie near to a house window is considered to foretell death; in Sweden it is associated with witchcraft and in Norway to be a bird belonging to the Huldra, or underground people. I think my favourite story is that the magpies refused to enter Noah's ark, rather sitting on the roof and swearing for the duration of the flood. When I watch a group of them in the fields, I can quite imagine it to be true!

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