Magpies - A Story of Seven

by Lynx

NATURAL HISTORY

Genus
There are 20 species of Magpie and Treepie in the world and they are all confined to an area from India, then over the Himalayas to China and down through SE Asia except for Pica pica, the Common Magpie whose distribution stretches from Europe to China and on to Canada and W. USA, the Cyanopica cyana, the Azure-winged Magpie, which has a patchy distribution with an isolated population in Spain, and the Pica nuttalli, the Yellow-billed Magpie, of California. The yellow-billed magpie holds the honours for being the only bird found exclusively within California's borders. Bird watchers from around the world travel to the Central Valley and south-coast ranges to see this flashy native. The Australian Magpie is of a different Genus and is a Shrike rather than of the Crow, or Corvid, family.

Habitat
Breeds and winters in open areas with trees or bushes, in woods, parks, gardens and hedgerows. A very common resident throughout most of Britain, although more local in northern Scotland. Becoming increasingly common in urban areas. One of the commonest birds of Europe.

Appearance
Magpies are believed to have evolved from a Jay-like ancestor and the 'pie' in Magpie and Treepie refers to the black and white or pied plumage of many of them. The common Magpie was originally known simply as 'the Pie', but in the 16th century the prefix Mag was added meaning 'chatterer'.

The Magpie with its immaculate black and white plumage and green and blue gloss, is an unmistakable bird. In flight it can be easily distinguished by its long-tailed profile.
In the open it flies, rising awkwardly, with quick flaps and glides - like a ragged kite. Among trees the species moves confidently, reflecting its agility. On the ground the tail is often held high as the bird 'kangaroo-hops' along.

Young Magpies have a washed-out appearance and short, stubby tails.

Voice
All are likely to be heard mimicking other birds. The raucous, cackling, 'caw, caw, caw' call is given frequently, reflecting the intensely competitive and social nature of this species. They can be trained to talk.

Breeding
All breed between March and July and most build relatively flimsy nests. The European Magpie, however, builds a relatively strong, dome roofed nest and the Green Magpie builds very large solid nests. Magpies nest in trees and tall bushes, using sticks and mud as building materials. The domed nest has a side entrance hole.

Between five and eight eggs is a typical brood; they are pale blue-green with brown speckles and usually hatch in April or early May. If the first clutch is lost, a substitute one is laid.

The common Magpie is known for its lifelong pairings.

Habits
Both the European Magpies are highly social and tend to be found in small flocks outside the breeding season. Other species are usually found in pairs, or in small groups of 3 to 4. This applies to the Treepies as well.

Large numbers of magpies gather in 'parliaments'. No one is entirely sure why, during the winter, these birds can gather in groups of up to 100. Gatherings possibly occur when a pair of magpies try to invade another pair's territory; the ensuing competition for breeding space may attract large numbers of magpie onlookers.

Lifespan
Magpies live for an average of two and a half years and the adults live in pairs during much of the year, meeting in the winter to fly in groups and spend the night in dense bushes.

Diet
All species are omnivorous taking insects, small birds eggs, small mammals, tree frogs and small reptiles as well as a variety of fruits. The Common Magpie population increase may also be attributed to an increase in road kills (as a result of increased traffic), which provides carrion for the magpies

Enemies
For many people the Magpie is a villain, responsible for the widespread decline of songbirds. Research examining the question of whether Magpies have been responsible for songbird decline has failed to find any evidence to support the notion that they are to blame. It is true that while Magpie numbers have tended to increase, those of many of our songbird species have declined. These increases and decreases have occurred over different time periods and in different parts of the country, which suggests that the general patterns are a coincidence and not cause-and-effect.

At a local level, Magpies can sometimes be a problem for nesting birds; in fact in many gardens they are probably the second most important predator after the domestic cat. Mind you, in the absence of wild mammals like the Weasel, many garden birds probably may still suffer less predation than they would experience in natural woodlands and farmland hedgerows.

Intelligence
Like other members of the Crow family, Magpies can be very interesting to watch. They are social birds with a degree of intelligence that has enabled them to adapt to a changing environment.

In common with jackdaws, magpies are attracted to shiny objects and are notorious for stealing rings and other jewellery left on windowsills or tables out of doors.

FOLKLORE

China
The Chinese traditionally see the magpie as a bird of good fortune, except if you kill one when misfortune will arrive. Magpie is a symbol of happiness in Chinese culture. The singing of a magpie foretells happiness and good luck. That's why it is called 'Happy Magpie' by Chinese people. The Manchu minority in Northeast China even regards magpies as sacred birds. Under the Manchu dynasty it also represented imperial rule. Legends concerning magpies are found in the historical records about Manchu.
In both Chinese and Korean myths the Magpie Bridge joins the 3 bright stars of Aquila in the night sky, called the Cowherd, to Lyra, or the Spinning Damsel, across the river that is the Milky Way. This happens on the 7th night of the 7th moon.

Korea
Koreans believed that magpies delivered good news and invited good people. The most famous painting related to a magpie is the one with striped tiger (ggach'i wha horangi minhwa): the magpie is happily chirping to a tiger. The magpie represented good news and the tiger symbolised good luck, since its pronunciation in Chinese sounds similar to good luck (bok). Another interpretation states that the magpie is the village spirit that announces good omens, and the tiger is the servant that does his bidding; another that the tiger is a yangban (aristocrat) and the magpie is the representative of the common people, scolding him for his insensitivity to their plight.

Mongolia
The Magpie is a clever creature with control of the weather.

Germany
In Germany the number of birds, according to tradition, indicated forthcoming events. One is viewed as unlucky; two brings merriment or marriage; three is a successful journey; four is good news and five indicates you should expect company.

France
In Poitou there still lingers a trace of pie-worship: a bunch of heath and laurel is tied to the top of a high tree in honour of the magpie, because her chatter warns the people of the wolf's approach.

Scandinavia
Under Christianity the same shift of superstition from lucky to unlucky occurred in Norse countries as across the rest of Europe. In old Norse mythology, Skadi (the daughter of a giant) was a priestess of the magpie clan. The black and white markings of the magpie were seen to represents sexual union, as well as male and female energies kept in balance. Later on in time, Scandinavians thought that magpies were sorcerers flying to unholy gatherings, and yet the nesting magpie was once considered a sign of luck in those countries.

Italy
The Magpie features in a Rossini opera, ‘The Thieving Magpie’, or La Gazza Ladra. This opera tells the story of a pet magpie that steals shiny objects, resulting in an innocent servant almost being sent to the gallows after being accused of the magpie's crimes. The story echoes the common belief that magpies steal and hide shiny objects. In some countries it is thought to chatter in a way that sounds like human speech. For example, in Italy it is known as ‘gazza’, and has given its name to ‘gazetta’, the Italian for newspaper.

Greece
It was sacred to Bacchus, the God of wine, so it became associated with intoxication.

Britain
An old English tradition notes that if one magpie flies by, you should take your hat off and bow repeating this line : Morning/Afternoon Mr Magpie. How's Mrs Magpie and all the little Magpies? This will help assure your good luck throughout the day.

One seen flying or croaking around a house or sitting alone symbolises that misfortune is present. Should a flock of magpies suddenly abandon a nesting area then, like the crow and rook, death is present and hard times are ahead. To avoid bad luck it is said that taking your hat off to the passing birds will act as protection against darker forces. Perhaps these associations stem from the fact that it was the only bird that would not enter the Ark preferring to stay outside. It is one of the very birds that also has black and white plumage, a combination of the sacred or holy colour (white) and of evil (black).

To have one perch on your roof though is supposed to indicate that the house will never fall down. According to tradition it would be best to rearrange a journey if you see just one. If one is seen on the way to church it signifies that death is present, hence some believe that it is best to cross yourself to ward off evil or negative energies whilst saying 'Devil, Devil, I defy thee'.

In Somerset, England it was once thought that to carry an onion at all times would provide protection against magpies.

In Scotland the magpie was once believed to carry a drop of the Devil's blood under its tongue which perhaps stems from another belief that the magpie was the only bird not to wear full mourning at the Crucifixion.

The following rhyme was popularised by a children's TV programme of the same name:

One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold and seven for a secret never to be told.

Legend also has it that when a magpie's mate dies it summons an assembly of other magpies at which the dead bird is honoured before a new mate is selected. In Celtic lore the bird was sacred to 'Magog.'

Australia
The magpie is seen in a negative, aggressive light. This may be because the Australian Magpie is of the Shrike (an aggressive hunter) family rather than the Crow family.

Native American
In general in Native American myth the Magpie is seen as the ally and helper of humans. They feature in legends from the Navaho, Blackfoot and Cheyenne

MAGIC
Magpie: one of those clever birds that has shamanic qualities

Symbolism
Related to the crow the magpie is an intelligent and adaptable bird. Ancient folklore associated with the magpie suggests that when two or more fly into one’s life good fortune is coming soon. Since magpies are opportunists and seldom miss a chance to get something for nothing, those with this medicine should pay attention to subtle omens that appear in their life then act accordingly so opportunities are not missed. The magpie asks us to wake up and be conscious in every area of our life.

Magpies are curious and have a reputation for stealing anything that they can carry away. They use whatever they find and teach us how to be resourceful. Magpie medicine people have the ability to succeed in life. Those with this totem are usually eclectic and able to draw on a variety of resources to assist them in their pursuits. Being able to adapt to different situations in a spontaneous way is one of the magpie’s strongest attributes. Those with this totem often find that their interests are varied which make master ship of any one thing difficult although not impossible.

Magpies are extremely vocal especially in groups. They help those with this medicine learn how to use their voice to attract attention, attain desired goals as well as acquire respect from others. This applies only if this medicine is developed sufficiently. Otherwise the voice and its expression may need improvement for positive results to be obtained. Proper communication is one of the lessons that needs to be learned by magpie medicine people.

Although many in the Norse tradition associate the Magpie with Skadi, because of the similarity of the name, I associate the Magpie with Loki's daughter Hel. Hel is described as having a face that is 'half blue-black and half flesh (or white) coloured' - like the Magpie's colouring. She rules the lowest of the Nine Worlds, at the base of Yggdrasil, as mistress of the chthonic mysteries. Like Asgardhr, Helheim (Hel's home) cannot be reached directly from Midgardhr - one must ‘ride over a bridge’, or travel between worlds with the aid of one´s fylgia (usually a totem or sacred animal or Soul Companion and Guide). The bridge to Helheim crosses the river Gjoll and it’s guarded by the giant Maiden Modgudh. As Bifrost is fiery and narrow, the bridge to Helheim is icy and wide.

Helheim is also called Niflhel, meaning Misty Hel or Dark Hel, which refers to the Goddess´ primary aspect of concealment. Hel borders very closely on the world Nifheimr; it is located down and to the North, and it is the implied location of the venom-filled halls, on Na Strand, and home of the dragon Niddhogg, embodiment of the concealed powers of destruction/transformation. Hel is the hidden root to which all things sink, as all the waters wend their way to Hvergelmir, and from which all things rise again.
Although the realm of Hel is described as horrible in parts - the lifeless, lightless, joyless dwelling of the dead. It is written elsewhere that Hel is brightly bedecked and hospitable. She welcomes those who die of sickness, famine or old-age and even Balder resides there after his death. This dual nature can be seen in the figure of the goddess Hel herself: She is half a beautiful woman and half a corpse, her concealment both that of the womb and that of the tomb. Hel receives those souls who cannot struggle through to Valhalla, but in time, as her name Mother Holle suggests, she bears them forth again.

All of this tells us that the Magpie can be a double-edged sword. It requires mastery of your magpie spirit to achieve things, unmastered it will be self-destructive. Gossip, or uncontrolled chatter, and an unreasoning attraction to shiny things - be it materialistic objects, people or an inability to concentrate - spells danger just as oratory, or controlled chatter, concentration and the quick opportunistic observation can be used to devastating effect.

Tokens and Artwork
The Magpie is difficult to find - both in the wild and your local shop! In Korea they appear in artwork and there is Monet's picture 'Magpie in winter' but other than that they are few and far between. Your best bet is to try and find a feather and wear it as a token just as the Cheyenne do.

The Tao Ying Yang amulet would also be a good token as the Ying-yang symbolises the black and white of the Magpie and it's the sort of bright thing that would attract them. The number 7 is a significant number for Magpie people.

Sacred Times
Spring and Autumn - the black and white colour of the Magpie represents the balance between light and dark that occurs around the equinoxes. Also the high winds and changeable weather reminds us of the stormy change that the Magpie can bring into life. Dusk and dawn are the times to see Magpies and, much like the equinoxes, they are times when the balance between light and dark is equal.

The other time is dawn and dusk - a time when you are likely to see Magpie's cleaning the road.

Astral Travel

The Magpie
by Robert S. Warshow

I walked one day
In the Garden of Wasted Things,
And there I found
The bitter ghosts of all that had been spent unwisely,
Or lost through brutal circumstance.
I found the childhood
That some labourer's child had never known;
I found the youth that some young man had squandered;
There I found some poet's genius
That had gone unrecognised.
I saw the ghosts of idle words,
And small talk,
That men had used to waste away the hours.
I saw the hopes that had been smothered,
And all the dreams
That never had come true,
And Laughter that had died for lack of bread.
I met with all the lives that had been misdirected,
And spoke with dreary shades
Of loves that might have been,
And songs that never had been sung.
I met with all these ghosts,
And many more;
And each of them
Sat silently in the shadows,
Brooding over quirks of mad Creation,
And puppets' dreams.

Once again there aren't many traditional songs or chants that can be used to invoke Magpie. I often use the trance method (as mentioned below) to fly across the otherworld.

Prophecy and Divination
You can use the traditional nursery rhyme:

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

Or

One for sorrow, Two for mirth,
Three for a wedding, Four for a birth.
Five for rich, Six for poor,
Seven for a witch -- I can tell you no more.

For other tools things like mirrors that contain both dark and light, or other shiny objects would attract the Magpie spirit.

Dreamwork
In dreams the Magpie will signify opportunities coming into your life. The number seen will help signify what you should expect.

Magic Circles
When drawing the circle dress yourself in black and white and try alternate leg hopping (or visualisations as mentioned in trance below). You can dress in formal wear, a black bowler hat and tailcoat, with your thumbs in your waistcoat (just like in the old films), then bend yourself double, spread your arms out, spread your fingers wide and swoop round the circle to get that magpie feeling.

Trance
I find that visualising the Magpie's movement, the way it hops, flexes its tail and flies is the key to trance work. The brightness of its beady eye will draw you in…
If you have a magpie spirit guide, once you get used to the visualisation, it becomes a hop, hop, fly to shift into the magpie.

Healing

Fairy of the Magpie Bridge
Poem by Qin Guan
Translation by Kylie Hsu

Among the beautiful clouds,
Over the heavenly river,
Crosses the weaving maiden.
A night of rendezvous,
Across the autumn sky,
Surpasses joy on earth.
Moments of tender love and dream,
So sad to leave the magpie bridge.
Eternal love between us two,
Shall withstand the time apart.

The Magpie is a strong healer for relationships, particularly those emotional hurts. In Chinese legend a bridge of Magpie's is used for two star-crossed lovers to meet. It is the magpie's faithfulness to their partners and families which you can invoke to send a message to the Gods. Try burning this poem or a drawing of the magpie with incense to speed the message on its way.

Protection

Magpie meal awaits:
Fast car - country lane - danger,
Fawn dead on roadside.

Haiku - by DaRC

Magpie's are excellent protectors and will call out their 'Caw, caw, caw' warning. So in that way forewarned is forearmed. They are also masters of evasion - often using the two of them to do the old 'one-two' on any opponent.

Invoke the Australian magpie for the fearless, aggressive aspect especially when protecting friends or family.