Opinion: as the nursery rhyme suggests, the bird is long associated with superstitions around bad luck, negativity and ill-omens

The most intelligent species in the world is believed to be the magpie, a bird who is from the crow family. The bird looks black and white in colour but, if seen in sunlight and up close, it reveals a hue of purple-blue colour on the wings and green on the tail. The name is derived from two words 'mag' and 'pie'; 'mag' means to chatter, and ‘pie’ refers to the pied plumage of the bird. Years ago, ‘pied’ also was used to describe things with a mixture of colours. Put together, the two words refer to a bird with iridescent black plumage, a hue of mixed colours (purple-blue & green) and who engages in loud and constant chattering.

The bird is also the subject of a nursery rhyme borrowed from the folklore of United Kingdom. There are many species of birds found in United Kingdom, but the magpie is the only one present in most superstitions. The bird is considered as evil in Europe and the United States, but is associated with positivity as such in East Asian countries as China and Korea.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Mooney Goes Wild, a deep dive into the world of the magpie with Dr. Toni Shephard, Dr. Richard Collins and Professor Brendan Kavanagh

First recorded in 1780, the magpie rhyme has many versions according to diverse cultures. However, the reception of the bird in all variations is negative: it's a bird that brings bad luck, and the nursery rhyme begins with "One for Sorrow". Since time immemorial, it is believed that a single magpie always brings bad luck and magpies in a pair (two Magpies) bring joy or are positive.

One for sorrow,
Two for mirth,
Three for a funeral,
Four for a birth.

(Note in John Brand's Observations on Popular Antiquities from 1777, the first recorder of lyrics of the nursery rhyme.)

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a funeral,
Four for birth,
Five for heaven,
Six for hell,
Seven for the devil, his own self.

(Extended version in Michael Aislabie Denham's A Collection of Proverbs and Popular Sayings Relating to the Seasons, the Weather, and Agricultural Pursuits from 1846)

Those humans and their superstitions, eh?

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.

(Modern Version)

This folksong became popular among kids as a nursery rhyme after it was used as a theme tune for Magpie, a children's TV show that ran from 1968 to 1980. 

"One for sorrow…"

So why are there so many superstitions and bad omens associated with magpies? At the time of crucifixion of Jesus, the magpie was supposed to be the only bird who didn’t comfort or mourn for him and the bird has been linked with bad fortune and negative traits since then. It is also said that the only bird not to go into the ark with Noah was a magpie. Instead of going with Noah, it sat on top and continued swearing while the world was drowned. These religious superstitions indicate that the bird cannot be trusted.

"Six for hell, Seven for the devil, his own self."

The evilness of magpies is not just limited only to religious superstitions and the bird is also associated with the devil and its pied plumage associated with evil and bad fortune. Magpies are also known for stealing shiny objects (like jewellery) and can deceive others, therefore, the attribution of being evil. Some of the superstitions revolve around magpies’ eating habit: they are omnivorous and eat plants, seeds and dead animals. Due to this habit of eating dead animals, the bird is considered to have some devil’s blood and is associated with death as well.

To avoid all the bad luck, negativity and ill-omen after meeting a magpie, people have created or found various solutions. They believe the magpie will never inject any sort of bad luck if the person keeps the bird happy or shows utter respect. People are told that he/she should salute or wave at a magpie to show respect. Some also believe that greeting the bird also helps to fend off bad luck.

The superstitions are considered so serious that some people wink when they see a single magpie to believe that they saw two magpies. Another alternative is to flap your arms to imitate the second magpie. This tradition of respecting magpies is one which has been followed for centuries in an effort to fend off bad luck.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ