Why are magpies bad luck

00:00 Mon 25th Jun 2001 |

A. Good question there from Nooti- and one that opens a real can of worms. This startling black and white bird is subject of many superstitions and rhymes.< xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

Q. Such as

A. The 'one for sorrow' verse. If you see one magpie, you can expect sorrow, but two means joy. The most popular version of the rhyme at the moment continues: 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 is a kiss; ten is a bird you just can't miss.

Q. 'For a bird you just can't miss' What's that all about

A. A bit of a cheat, actually: that's the song they sang at the beginning of a 1970s children's show called Magpie - ITV's rival to Blue Peter. An Irish version of the superstition is: To meet a magpie on the road is a sign of bad luck; two magpies for good luck; three for sorrow; four for joy; five for a wedding; six for gold.

Q. So it's good luck and bad luck

A. Indeed- especially in China, where the magpie of a symbol of happiness.

Q. Go on.

A. The magpie's song foretells happiness and good luck. That's why Chinese people call it happy Magpie. The Manchu people in north-east China even regard magpies as sacred. There's even a magpie in their legends.

Q. You're going to tell me all about it, aren't you

A. Thank you for the opportunity. A goddess called Fokulon and her two sisters were playing beside the lake when a beautiful magpie dropped a piece of red fruit. Fokulon picked it up and ate it. Soon she gave birth to a boy, named Bukulirongshun, and he became forefather of the Manchu people.

Bukulirongshun and his descendants were all heroic and skilled fighters, but neighbouring tribes felt threatened and combined to wipe them out. All but a boy called Fancha was killed. He escaped, pursued by the killers. As dusk fell, they almost caught up with him- but then a magpie landed on his head. He stood motionless- and the hunters mistook him for a tree trunk. Ever since, Manchu people look upon magpies as a symbol of happiness and luck. In 1644, a Manchu ruler became China's emperor and established the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and most Chinese people now accept the magpie story.

Q. I suppose you'd better tell me some ornithological details

A. You took the words right out of my mouth. Here goes. There are 20 species of magpie and treepie in the world, mostly in India. The common one's Latin aname is pica pica. Magpies are believed to have evolved from a Jay-like ancestor and the 'pie' refers to their black and white or pied plumage. The common magpie was originally known simply as 'the pie', but in the 16th Century, 'mag'- meaning chatters - was added. Magpies are highly social and can mimic other birds. All species are omnivorous taking insects, small birds eggs, small mammals, and small reptiles as well as a variety of fruits.

Q. So they're a well-loved species

A. No. They're killers and have been blamed for the decline of songbirds such as the thrush. As a result, they're often hunted by gamekeepers anxious to protect their birds and eggs. Magpies are however, cunning, and are difficult to trap.

Q. Any more superstitions

A. If you see three of these on your way to a wedding, it is said to be good luck for the happy couple. When you are out in the morning, you should doff your hat to the first magpie you see, asking: 'Good morning Mr Magpie, and how is your lady wife and family ' This will help assure your good luck throughout the day.

Q. All rubbish, isn't it

A. Of course. Except ... on the morning before my son was born I saw four magpies. And three of 'em on the lawn the day my daughter came into the world.

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By Steve Cunningham

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