When I was growing up, there was a children’s programme on ITV called ‘Magpie’. The theme tune was an version of the old folk song about the bird:
‘One for sorrow, two for joy,
Three for a girl and four for a boy,
Five for silver, six for gold,
Seven for a secret never to be told’.
And for anyone who wants to glory in their youth, you can find the whole thing here.
In truth, ‘Magpie’ was a little self-consciously trendy for me – I preferred Chris Noakes’s Fair Isle jumpers, and Valerie Singleton’s sensible dresses over on the BBC in ‘Blue Peter’. But the name ‘Magpie’ referred to the bird’s supposed habit of collecting little bits of treasure and taking them back to the nest, and harked back to a time when magpies were valued by farmers for the number of leatherjackets and other insect pests that they ate.
Nowadays, the bird has been so vilified that I doubt that anyone would name a programme after it. When did this happen? How did a common member of the crow family get to be Public Enemy Number One? And what is the truth behind its reputation?
In recent weeks, I have encountered several people who have been doing battle with the bird. In Costa Rica, I met someone who had captured one magpie in a Larsen trap, and had used this as a way to dispatch twelve others who came down to see what was going on. At the weekend I was on a very interesting Field Studies Council birdwatching walk in Regent’s Park, and the appearance of a pair of magpies led to a lively discussion about the bird’s role as a despatcher of songbird eggs and nestlings. In short, the blame for the demise of thrushes and blackbirds, black caps and tits has been laid at the scaly black feet of this noisy hooligan of a bird.
It is true that magpies will take baby birds from the nest, and destroy eggs, but they are not alone in this. Great Spotted Woodpeckers will peck through a nest box and pull out the pink hatchlings one at a time. I have watched a jay snatch a fledgling starling by the wingtip and lay it open like the pages of a book before pummelling it to death. And don’t get me started on cats. I suspect that it is the sheer visibility of the magpie that makes them so hated. The way that they skip about, their distinctive plumage, their cackling calls and their habit of gathering in gangs, especially when young, means that they are difficult to ignore. And they have increased in numbers, especially in cities where there are more sources of food, and they are (generally) less likely to be shot.
But magpies have been in the British Isles for millenia, and have presumably been eating songbird young for a few months every year for all this time. They are omnivorous, adaptable birds: everything from chips to earthworms is grist to their mill. The RSPB did a study of 35 years of data, and concluded that there was no relationship between the increase in magpie numbers and the decrease in the number of songbirds. Correlation is not causation, as any scientist will tell you.
If we really want to know why our songbirds have declined, why lapwings no longer tumble above our fields, why the call of the curlew and the exultation of the lark are becoming increasingly rare, we need to look for causes more complicated than a single species.
We need to look at the impoverishment of our soils, which no amount of fertiliser will cure. We need to look at the way that those fertilisers are polluting our watercourses.
We need to look at the use of agricultural and garden herbicides, which diminish the range of plants that grow, and hence the diversity of insects upon which those songbirds depend to feed their young.
We need to look at the way that ancient hedgerows have been grubbed up and replaced by fences, because they are cheaper to maintain.
We need to look at the relentless use of pesticides which kills not just the insects that they are aimed at, but the creatures that feed upon them.
We need to look at the destruction of old barns and outbuildings that were once a place to nest, and at the design of newer houses that allow nowhere for these creatures to raise their young or to rest their heads. We need to consider the way that our gardens are paved over and decked out to make room for our cars. And we need to look at our need for tidy garden spaces that are ‘low maintenance’.
These things are not so simple to sort out. It’s much easier to scapegoat a species that is certainly guilty of occasional nestling murder. But an ecosystem is complicated. Take out the magpies, and I would bet a pound to a penny that they’ll be back within a year, because these are territorial creatures, and a vacant territory will not stay empty for long.
There is a strong instinct in humans to protect their territory too. I know how furious I have been with a local cat who sits for hours in my garden looking for something to torment. The cat is well-fed, and rarely eats what he kills. The magpie is taking food home for its offspring, or to feed itself. Much as I pity the blackbird or the blue tit, I know that many of them will breed again later in the year. A blue tit can have up to twelve nestlings in a single nest. If every one of those survived, we would soon be up to our waists in balls of fluff. I bow to no one in my urge to keep the more vulnerable creatures in my garden safe, but nature has other urges, and survival is one of them.
So next time a magpie visits the garden, I would invite you to really look at it. Admire the green and purple iridescence of its plumage, that long, ungainly tail. Take the time to look at the relationships between individual birds – a more dominant bird will always sit higher up a tree, and the length of the tail is one clue to how dominant the bird is. Watch when the magpie chicks leave the nest, with their incessant calling for food and their chubby innocence. We do not build a healthy ecosystem by knocking out a major predator, we do it by making sure that all the constituent parts, soil, plants, insects, birds, thrive.
We mulch, compost, use organic matter. We plant hedges and perennials that are good for pollinators and other insects. We lay off the pesticides and herbicides. We try to build spots suitable for nesting, roosting, sheltering. We provide a water source. We don’t cut everything back at the first sign of untidiness. Gradually, our gardens become havens for all sorts of creatures, and the drama of life plays itself out under our noses, in all its joy and occasional brutality. We cannot do everything, but if we are lucky enough to have a garden, we can do this.