Since as far back as the 16th century, the Common Magpie (Pica pica) has been considered, in many cultures, a bird of ill omen. The superstition was put into a rhyme, the first iteration of which was published in 1780, which read:
“One for sorrow,
Two for mirth,
Three for a funeral
And four for birth”
Since then, the rhyme has evolved and the modern version, which I learned from the children’s TV show “Magpie” (1968-1980), goes something like this:
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.
Eight for a wish,
Nine for a kiss,
Ten for a bird,
You must not miss.
With a distribution across Eurasia, northwest Africa, Arabia and western North America, the humble Magpie must be one of the best-known birds in these regions. Yet, this most familiar of birds has been keeping a secret, only now revealed by new research; the Common Magpie is actually seven different species!
The new research, led by Professor Per Alström and Gang Song, was recently published in the Journal of Avian Biology and a summary by Prof Alström for the British Ornithological Union can be read here.
In short, the research shows that despite looking very similar, there is significant divergence between geographic populations of Magpie and, on that basis, the authors suggest that seven species should be recognised:
1. Eurasian Magpie Pica pica sensu stricto (comprising six subspecies from Europe to northeast Russia);
2. Maghreb Magpie P. mauritanica (Northwest Africa);
3. Asir Magpie P. asirensis (southwest Saudi Arabia);
4. Black-rumped Magpie P. bottanensis (eastern Tibetan plateau);
5. Oriental Magpie P. serica (east China and neighbouring areas);
6. Black-billed Magpie P. hudsonia (northwestern North America); and
7. Yellow-billed Magpie P. nutalli (California).
This means that Beijing’s Magpies should, from now on, be known as Oriental Magpies.
And so, the Magpie’s secret is finally told… and it just goes to prove that there is still much to discover, even about our most common and familiar birds.
I. Opie and M. Tatem, eds, A Dictionary of Superstitions (Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 235-6.
J Brand, “Observations on Popular Antiquities” (1780)