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Murder, Mischief and Murmurations – Magpie, Raven and Starling


I am currently reading 'Magpie Murders' by Anthony Horowitz and was reminded of the childhood rhyme ..... one for sorrow two for joy .... and so on. I wonder what it would be for 200! For this was the number of Magpie I counted, before it was too dark to see, coming to roost in willow scrub one winters evening near my home.



Murder of Magpie

Magpie roosts begin to build up from October reaching a peak mid-winter before breaking up in March as the breeding season begins in earnest. They tend to comprise birds from within the immediate local area.

They are scavengers and a bit of a bully in the bird world so for many people their first sighting of Magpie is likely to be at the side of the road as the birds scavenge on roadkill, or as they try to balance on the bird feeders in the garden with much wing flapping and commotion.

Like most ‘crows’ they are very intelligent and inquisitive and have been known to steal jewellery and other shiny objects, gaining a reputation as a thief. However they are also affectionate birds - I remember raising one as a child and rarely went anywhere without it on my shoulder. It would come to call and had its own chatter of greeting and welcome unlike any other of its wild siblings.

However back to the Rhyme ....

Many people have grown up knowing One For Sorrow, Two For Joy, the popular magpie nursery rhyme where the number of birds counted at any one time will determine whether you have bad luck or good luck.

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Probably the most well known version recited is as follows:

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.

However, there are a number of alternative versions and a longer rhyme which is local to Lancashire counts up to 13 magpies with an additional 6 lines:

Eight for a wish
Nine for a kiss
Ten a surprise you should be careful not to miss
Eleven for health
Twelve for wealth
Thirteen beware it’s the devil himself.

The earliest version of the rhyme was recorded in 1780 in a note in John Brand's Observations on Popular Antiquities. John Brand was an English antiquarian and Church of England clergyman who was appointed Secretary to the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1784. The phrase "popular antiquities" later became known as folklore, a term coined by William John Thoms in 1846. It was a much simpler version with just 4 lines:

One for sorrow,
Two for mirth,
Three for a funeral
And four for birth.

In 1846 the rhyme was added to in Proverbs and Popular Saying of the Seasons by Michael Aislabie Denham, an English merchant and collector of folklore.

Five for heaven
Six for hell
Seven for the devil, his own self.

Although all these songs and rhymes are most often associated with magpies, they can also be used to count other corvids such as Jackdaw, Raven and Crow.

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One thought on “Murder, Mischief and Murmurations – Magpie, Raven and Starling

  1. The Flight Behaviour of Starling at a Winter Roost

    British Birds – February 1976
    James Brodie

    Co-ordinated flying displays by flocks of Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) are often a feature at pre-roosting areas, but the most spectacular displays occur at the main roost, when very large numbers of birds fly together, prior to final roosting. On many evenings, however, the Starlings may quickly enter the roost on arrival, or give only a brief flying display.

    The flight behaviour of Starlings prior to roosting, and changes in location of the roosting site, appears related to prevailing weather conditions. Roosts may change if the weather conditions, especially wind, mean that the roost is potentially exposed. It is now believed that the primary function of flight displays may be to provide Starlings with a visual marker which will facilitate their detection of pre-roosting or roosting areas.

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