Tuesday 22 October 2019

The magpie - a striking bird which not many warm to

The Magpie’s plumage has a metallic iridescent sheen of purples, blues and greens
The Magpie’s plumage has a metallic iridescent sheen of purples, blues and greens

Jim Hurley - Nature Trail

While, on the face of it, the Magpie is a striking bird with its plump body, upright stance, long tail, confidently alert demeanour, bold black and white pattern and plumage with a metallic iridescent purple, blue and green sheen, not many people appear to warm to it.

Worse still, it has long been associated with evil as an English observation from 1507 testifies: "Whan pyes chatter vpon a house it is a sygne of ryghte euyll tydynges."

There are no opinions about Magpies in Ireland dating from that time as it appears that the birds did not occur here. Writing in 1581 in his book 'The Image of Ireland', the author John Derricke confirms: "No Pies to plucke the thatch from house are breed in Irishe grounde."

The 'pie' part of the bird's common name refers to its piebald patterned plumage and 'Mag' is interpreted as a diminutive of Margaret. In 'Macbeth', Shakespeare refers to the piebald crow as the 'Magot Pie'.

The Magpie appears to have arrived in Ireland sometime in the late seventeenth century. George Griffiths' 'Chronicles of the County Wexford' published in 1887 quotes Solomon Richards' first-hand record, written in 1682, of the arrival of a small flock of the birds to the barony of Forth in the far south of county Wexford: 'One remarque more is, there came with a stronge blacke Easterly wind, a flight of Magpies, under a dozen as I remember, out of England, or Wales, as 'tis verily believed, none having ever been seen in Ireland before. They lighted in the Barony of Forthe, where they have bredd...'

Robert Leigh of Rosegarland, writing in 1684 states: "About eight years ago there appeared in these parts … a parcel of Magpies, which now breed." His account pins the arrival date of the colonisation to about 1676.

The Countryside Bird Survey organised by BirdWatch Ireland has revealed that the magpie is the 8th most widespread species of bird in the Republic of Ireland, having been recorded in 85% of the survey's one-kilometre squares. However, despite the apparent abundance the average count per survey square is only five, far less than the Blackbird, Wren and Swallow.

Rooks build in social groups but unlike other members of the crow family Magpies are solitary nesters. Their large nests built high in trees were obvious during the winter but now that most trees have budded, their constructions are hidden from view.

Wexford People

Most Read