Thursday 23 May 2024

Won-over by Magpies in Newcastle upon Tyne

From The Detectorists. The performers (The Unthanks) are local to Newcastle.

Folk feelings about magpies (i.e. the Eurasian magpie, Pica pica) are strong in both directions. 

In folklore the birds have a generally negative reputation. They are mostly feared; especially when seen (apparently) alone - as with the magpie nursery rhyme "One for sorrow..." in its several variants. 

They may be addressed with the kind of propitiatory respect accorded to fairies. 

All this is on display in one of Terry Pratchett's best fantasy novels Carpe Jugulum; where the vampire villains are Count de Magpyr and his family, and flocks of magpies are eyes, spies and scavengers under vampire control. 

Magpies have a deserved reputation for theft of bright objects (e.g. Rossini's "Thieving Magpie" opera), and for carnivorous aggression - including against song-bird chicks.

Here in Newcastle, the local magpies are credited with having been first to discover how to peck through the foil tops from old style milk bottles, and drink from them; thereby infecting the local population with Campylobacter food poisoning. 

(I've suffered this illness, although neither from milk nor magpies, and it was undoubtedly one of the most painful and generally unpleasant weeks of my life! I shall spare you the - ahem - details.) 

And yet - I also felt a kind of pride that our local magpies were (allegedly) the ones to discover how to access this source of nutrition (shame about the human misery and occasional fatalities...). 

Such positivity towards magpies is - of course - reflected in the world famous black and white vertical stripes of Newcastle United football club: who are nicknames The Magpies. 

At times the city streets will be "ablaze" with people dressed as "magpies" with black and white striped flags, shirts, hats, scarves and... pretty much everything. 

Newcastle United/ B&W magpie symbolism quite often features on gravestones, too (some rather magnificent).

A Newcastle United fan-badge with magpies instead of sea-horses on the club crest:

Magpies are frequent visitors to our garden; and this led me to observe the birds for myself; and gradually to warm towards them. 

Magpies are quite noisy, so their presence is usually obvious. I noticed that they live and work in pairs, and research led me to discover that these are mating pairs, and the bird is monogamous - more close-knit and loyal than most (modern) human marriages! 

Mr and Mrs Magpie will operate together in a highly intelligent and coordinated way; and by doing so can repel far larger numbers of other birds; crows - for example when competing for nesting sites, or when crows try to drive magpies away from the vicinity of their nests (and chicks). I have watched a pair of magpies holding-off a great flock of big, mean crows - maybe twenty at a time? 

At one point we were feeding the squirrels in our garden, and began to leave out a few peanuts on the platform of the feeder. After just a couple of days I realized that the magpies had already noticed, and were watching and waiting so that the nuts would be taken before I had even walked back to the house. 

I began to play a kind of game, by making the nuts harder and harder to access - hiding them, or placing them behind the feeder. The magpies seemed to enjoy this; and would hunt-out the nuts, always finding and getting them - at extremes even hovering beside the feeder to use their beaks to pull-out a single nut tucked between the feeder and the tree. 

I asked my scientist colleague Michael Woodley about this; and he confirmed that magpies (and Corvids generally) were indeed one of the most intelligent of native British birds in terms of problem-solving (surpassed only by jackdaws). 

So, here we have a clue to the split opinions about magpies: they are more similar to humans than other birds. 

We admire and identify-with some of their traits, and are dismayed to see ourselves reflected in others. 

And magpies are one of not-many birds (the robin is another) with whom we can feel a personal connection, a flash of empathy between very unlike creatures. 

Handsome, as well!


Laeth said...

we have a lot of magpies in our new house and just yesterday i was reading about them and found it quite sweet that they are monogamous. and indeed, usually we see them in pairs.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Laeth - I suppose quite a few animals including birds are monogamous - like magpies, often when the two sexes look similar (for biological reasons!)

What seems special about magpies is the way they stick-together and work-together, seemingly in rapid and close (perhaps telepathic?) communication.

Evan Pangburn said...

Yanks like me like to drink Newcastle Brown Ale. It's prettu good.