If you think our Magpies are black and white, look again.
Warning: the photos in this post are a bit gory!
The highlight – if this can be called a highlight – of my early morning local walk was this Magpie, feeding on the grass in a local park.
Although Magpies mostly eat fruit, seeds and small insects, they are also opportunists who will quite happily scavenge household food waste, eat the eggs and chicks of other birds, and graze on road kill and other carrion. This bird had found a dead rat and was happily pulling it apart for a bloody, but presumably nourishing breakfast.
At least, I hope it was nourishing – the rat could, I suppose, have been poisoned, and I’m not sure whether that would have an adverse effect on the bird. I hope not.
Just like their makers, nests come in all shapes and sizes, and they’re made of all sorts of materials: twigs and branches, feathers, moss, paper and plastic, mud. They can be seen high in trees and on buildings, hidden secretively away in hedges and behind reeds, or plonked in a hole in a concrete platoon, as I saw some Coots do recently in Cardiff. Some are messy and loosely constructed, others are cosy and snug, still others are miniature works of art.
This is prime bird-nesting season so it’s quite likely you’ll see nests when you’re out walking. Please stay well away and do not disturb parents, eggs or babies. In Britain (and I’m sure in most countries) it is, in fact, an offence under The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to ‘intentionally take, damage, destroy the nest of any wild bird while it is in use or being built’ and to ‘intentionally take or destroy the egg of any wild bird’. (You can read more details here.) And, rest assured, my photos were all taken with a long lens, well away from the birds, so as not to disturb them.
Spring is definitely in the air here in south Wales. Wildflowers are wakening and blossom is bursting, migrating creatures are on the move and those that don’t migrate are thinking about procreation. For birds, that means nest building, and this Magpie obviously had some rather grandiose ideas about the size of nest it was going to construct. But had it bitten off more than it could chew?
What I grew up in New Zealand thinking of as a magpie is nothing like the magpies I see here in Wales, which is not really surprising as they are totally different species and the New Zealand bird is actually Australian. Confused?
The bird that lives in Britain is the European magpie (Pica pica) (pictured above) and is a member of the corvid family, a relative of crows, rooks and jackdaws. The bird that lives in New Zealand is Gymnorhina tibicen, one of the nine species of Australian magpie (there were thought to be two Australian species in New Zealand but this is now in doubt).
The Australian birds are called magpies because of their physical resemblance to the European birds – it was quite common for British settlers to name birds, animals and plants after similar ones ‘at home’. Australian birds from Tasmania and Victoria were introduced into several areas of New Zealand in the 1860s and 1870s by local Acclimatisation Societies to control pasture pests like grass grubs, and their supposed importance to New Zealand agriculture was the reason they were afforded legal protection till 1951.
The magpies in New Zealand can be very aggressive birds, occasionally attacking both animals and humans that stray too close to their nests during the breeding season, though their nests are usually built high up in tall trees so their attacks are, in fact, unwarranted.
One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a 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,
You must not miss.
So the modern version of the rhyme goes. The original version, first recorded in 1780, was a little more sinister – One for sorrow, Two for mirth, Three for a funeral, Four for birth, Five for heaven, Six for hell, Seven for the devil, his own self – reflecting the common perception of magpies as birds of ill omen.
The magpie, with the easiest-to-remember scientific name of Pica pica, is a member of the corvidae family which also includes jays and crows, ravens and jackdaws. One look at that strong beak shows the similarity. But these birds also have other things in common: they are intelligent, able to solve problems and have excellent memory. They have a strong sense of curiosity, are sociable and are brilliant mimics. Many people think of magpies as black and white but, of course, they’re not. As soon as the sunshine strikes their back, wing and tail feathers, you can see what a gorgeous bluish sheen they feathers have.
My question is: what does it mean when you see 12 magpies together?