How to salute a magpie

Acknowledging and hailing magpies is a long-held country superstition. We reveal how to salute a magpie, and other fascinating facts.

Many of us perform differing rituals and routines in the presence of a single magpie. Some raise their hats, some salute in military fashion, others cross themselves and some believe that seeing a crow immediately after a magpie will cancel out the unfortunate effects of seeing one of these chattering birds.

We reveal how to salute a magpie and other fascinating facts:

1. In order to ward off bad luck, greet the sight of a lone Pica pica with the words: ‘Good morning, Mr Magpie, how are Mrs Magpie and all the other little magpies?’

2. A single magpie has been regarded as a portent of doom since time immemorial—possibly stemming from the suggestion that the magpie was the only bird not to sing to Jesus as he died on the cross, which gave it a reputation for meanness.

3. Other common names for the magpie (Pica pica) are: bush magpie; chattermag (Somerset); chatterpie (Norfolk, Somerset); Cornish pheasant (Cornwall); haggister; longtailed nan; madge; mag; Margaret’s pie; maggit (Worcestershire); maggot (Lincolnshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire); magot pie (eastern England); marget; miggy (northern England); mock-a-pie; nanpie (North Yorkshire – Craven); ninut (Nottinghamshire); pianate; piannot (Cheshire); pie; piet (Westmoreland); pyat, pyet, pyot (Scotland); pyenate (West Yorkshire); pynot (Derbyshire); tell pienot, tell piet (North Yorkshire).

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4. The collective noun for a group of chatterpies is a ‘michief’ of magpies.

5. Arguably, no other form of ancient bird lore is recited on such a regular basis as the old rhyme relating to seeing lots of magpies together which many believe goes:

One for sorrow
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver
Six for gold
Seven for a secret left untold.

However, there are several regional variations of this little ditty, such as: I saw eight magpies in a tree, Two for you and six for me. One for sorrow, two for mirth, Three for a wedding, four for a birth. Five for England, six for France, Seven for a fiddler, eight for a dance.

6. The magpie has a chattering call, and, in Scotland, it was believed that, if its tongue was scratched with the sharp edge of an unmilled silver sixpence, and a drop of human blood was inserted into the wound, the chattering magpie would acquire the gift of speech.

7. The magpie was the only bird that refused to enter Noah’s Ark, perching instead on the the top of the roof.

8. In the days of cock-fighting, fowl eggs were sometimes placed in a magpie’s nest in the belief that the young would absorb their foster-parents’ agression.

9. There are references to dried and powdered magpie flesh being used as a treatment for epilepsy and portions of magpie were used to cure melancholy, vertigo and poor eyesight. Eating a magpie’s leg would also help someone recover from being bewitched.

10. In the Orient, the magpie was prized as a sign of fertility and domestic bliss, admired for its yin-and-yang plumage (it was the official ‘bird of joy’ for the Manchu dynasty).