One for sorrow, two for joy…

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Oh, no! It’s caught a chick. Look, in its beak!” I point at the commotion breaking out in the lane. A magpie has a tiny sparrow clamped in its jaws. Despite frantic, flapping attempts by the twittering sparrow parents, who try to dive-bomb the bully-bird into dropping its prey, they are helpless against this merciless assailant. The magpie dodges their puny beaks and glides calmly away over the playground wall, the chick still twitching feebly in its beak.
“Good thing it’s the weekend. It would be horrible for the primary school kids to see that!” My husband frowns.

Horrible indeed. But in witnessing its kidnap of a defenceless sparrow, are we right to condemn the magpie as a ‘baby-killer’? After all, it’s only doing what all parents do, trying to provide food for its growing family. There may be up to six ravenous chicks in the nest, needing frequent high-protein meals if they’re to survive. Magpie numbers have increased in recent years, and this rise has been blamed for the decline in songbirds. Yet ornithologists suggest that this can be put down to loss of habitat and predatory cats.

Unlike the sparrow, which may produce as many as four clutches of eggs in a season, the magpie will only raise one brood per year and the young stay with their parents until autumn. According to the RSPB, only around 40% of magpies breed, leaving a lot of singletons. These tend to gather in noisy flocks, a hundred birds or more roosting together in winter. The Oxford Dictionary calls such groups a ‘tiding’, but I’ve also heard the term ‘parliament’ used. They are gregarious creatures, but their raucous ‘chak chak’ cry won’t win any singing prizes.
In the garden, the magpie struts around the lawn, searching for snails, worms and insects. It’s omnivorous, largely vegetarian in winter, but happy to scavenge on roadkill or carrion, cleaning up the mess left by others. From a distance, its plumage looks a Harlequin costume of black and white, but on closer inspection feathers on the tail (which makes up half the bird’s length) and wings are glorious iridescent blue. And what of the magpie’s reputation for stealing shiny stuff? In Rossini’s opera, ‘La Gazza Ladra’ (‘The Thieving Magpie’), a servant girl is falsely condemned for the theft of a silver spoon, which, it eventually transpires, has been swiped by a magpie. And a few summers ago, while playing a boisterous game on the lawn, my husband lost his wedding ring. It flew off his finger, landed in a flower bed and despite our best efforts was never found. Is it feasible that a sharp-eyed magpie fancied a band of gold to decorate its nest? Quite possibly, according to researchers who discovered items such as engagement rings and spanners in magpie nests, but such instances are not as common as we might think. The magpie is an inquisitive, intelligent bird, even able to recognise its own reflection, but it’s more likely to investigate than steal.

An unappealing bird, perhaps, but certainly a character. Back in the garden, the familiar, staccato ‘chak chak’ shrieks from the top of a pine tree. A solitary magpie squawks relentlessly until its mate arrives and lands on an adjacent branch. Two for joy, as the old rhyme says. I peer up into the branches, straining to see a nest.

The birds banter noisily for a minute, until the chatter becomes frantic. A black shape drifts past the tree – a large crow looking for easy pickings. It circles the tree-top twice before the furious magpies drive it away. The hunter becomes the hunted. Next time it might be the sparrow-hawk. Perhaps I feel a little sympathy for the magpie after all.

Written by Claire Thurlow