Debunking myths about magpies

The magpie has the worst reputation of any British bird. But, says Derek Niemann, the case against our piebald corvid is far from black and white.

 

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Magpie image by wildlife photographer Andrew Parkinson

The magpie has the worst reputation of any British bird. But, says Derek Niemann, the case against our piebald corvid is far from black and white.

 
Here, he puts the worst rumours to the test to decide on a final verdict: guilty or not guilty?
 
Gangland bully?
 
  • Do magpies use strength in numbers to bully weaker creatures? During the hour before darkness falls, magpies gather in groups – often of 20 or more. But the purpose is quite innocuous: they are coming to roost.
  • And the small gangs that taunt a cat, fox or stoat are using self-defence, trying to drive a predator away. There have been no known cases of magpies using mob-handed bullying tactics. 
    Verdict: Not guilty
 
Crimes against music?
 
  • Angered geese trumpet with higher decibels, but urban magpies have more neighbours to disturb with their rattling fusillades. The best that can be said of their clacking is that it is ‘percussive’.
  • But get close enough in spring to see the scarlet tongue lifting in a male’s part-opened bill and you might hear it sing a soft lullaby meant for its special other.
    Verdict: Not guilty
 
Cause of songbird decline?
 
  • British Trust for Ornithology research (2010) combined data from 200 sites in 1967–2000 with information collected by 2,000 volunteers in 1995–2005.
  • It showed that there was no causal link between an increase in magpie numbers and a decline in songbird numbers.
    Verdict: Not guilty
 
Killer of baby birds?
 
  • For eight months of the year the magpie subsists on a largely vegetarian diet. But in the breeding season this alert opportunist has five or six hungry young to feed.
  • It doesn’t hesitate to take the eggs and chicks of other birds to sustain its own brood.
    Verdict: Guilty
 
Thief of shiny things?
 
  • This persistent myth has been perpetuated in the arts, including in Rossini’s opera La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie).
  • Though captive magpies do learn to pick up the bright trinkets they notice that their owners value, there is no evidence of such behaviour in the wild.
    Verdict: Not guilty
 
 
Did you know?

 

Urban magpies are pooper-scoopers par excellence. A study in Sheffield found that up to a sixth of the corvids’ food hoards were dog faeces: they can extract nutrients from the ordure.

 

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