EVERY day, on some rough ground beside our offices, you can, if you’re lucky—or perhaps unlucky, for nothing in the countryside is so full of myth and omen— see 40 to 50 magpies at a time. The sound of their chattering, like someone shaking a matchbox.
The number of small songbirds is noticeably sparse, for the magpie is the arch nest-robber of eggs and hatchlings.
For reasons I can’t sensibly explain, I always nod my head when I see one; others salute or raise their hat and some countrymen have whole rhymes that have to be declaimed. These rituals are in place to ward off evil, although, as everyone knows from the most famous piece of bird lore—‘one for sorrow, two for joy…’—the number spotted at any one time is critically important to your prospects. These days, there are many more magpies than a century ago, which certainly keeps the superstitious busy.
In 1688, revolutionaries met at the Cock and Pynot pub (pynot was the Derbyshire name for the magpie) and agreed to offer the throne to William of Orange and overthrow James II. In time, William III was to meet his own end due to the actions of a mole. MH