One for sorrow, two for more sorrow

By Ruth D’Alessandro, The Wildlife Gardener The Wildlife Gardener loves birds. Well, all birds except magpies. A pair of these spiteful, arrogant creaky- voiced monsters has started building a nest in a whitebeam at the end of the Wildlife Garden. And I’m not happy about it.

Magpie © Sergey Yeliseev

What’s eatin’ you, Wildlife Gardener? Magpies are clever. They’re monochromatically beautiful. They steal shiny things and are entertaining fun characters in children’s books. The BBC can’t let forensic scientists or the cast of Eastenders walk through a wood without the grating rattle of a magpie. According to the rhyme, and the theme tune of Magpie (a 1970s ITV wannabe Blue Peter with cheesy presenters in tanktops and bad’fros), life gets better the more magpies there are:

One for sorrow, two for joy Three for a girl and four for a boy Five for silver, six for gold Seven for a secret never to be told.

Oh no it doesn’t. I’ve seen a pair of magpies drilling the brains out of a newly-fledged baby blackbird. I’ve been to inspect a box of recently-hatched spotted flycatchers and been confronted with blood, body parts and a ripped-open nest where a magpie has just dined. They tear up my lawn searching for cockchafer larvae and bounce around on my guttering at six in the morning making it leak. The resident sparrowhawk is an honest, magnificent predator. The magpies are just the avian equivalent of skulking, destructive hoodies. If they could use spray cans, they would.

Magpies are absent from the Scottish Highlands, and almost all the Scottish Islands. They were absent from Ireland until the end of the 17th century but now there are an estimated 320,000 magpie territories there. Source: Birdon.com

This year had so far boded well for bird species in the Wildlife Garden. As well as Flash, my companionable robin the usual hedge-sparrows, blue and great tits, wrens and blackbirds, I’ve noticed bullfinches, goldfinches and blackcaps. All of these will nest somewhere in the spring and normally I’d hope that would be in the Wildlife Garden.

Flash the robin

This year, I hope they all go somewhere else and deprive the whitebeam magpies and their nasty offspring of a food source. The magpies think they’ve nested above the larder of life, and if my garden birds aren’t savvy enough, they have. There’s little I can do, or am inclined to do about the situation. The whitebeam is on my neighbour’s land and the nest is 30ft up in the tree. Legally if my purpose is to conserve wild birds, under a general licence I could arguably destroy the nest or shoot the magpies (I’m a rotten shot and magpies are notoriously difficult to shoot anyway) but only with the landowner’s permission (possible), and well away from public roads and houses (not possible). I have better things to do with my life than acquire a Larsen trap. Instead, I draw a little comfort from the RSPB:

The RSPB commissioned the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) to analyse its 35 years of bird monitoring records. The study found that songbird numbers were no different in places where there were many magpies or sparrowhawks from where there are few. It found no evidence that increased numbers of magpies have caused declines in songbirds and confirms that populations of prey species are not determined by the numbers of their predators. It is the availability of food and suitable places in which to nest that decide the population. Source: RSPB

So, reluctantly, and grumpily, I guess I have to let nature take its course. The Wildlife Garden has plenty of mixed hedgerows, trees, nooks and crannies for nesting birds, and insect food as I don’t use pesticides. If the smaller birds manage to keep their heads down, I have to hope that the sparrowhawk takes a swipe not at Flash, but at the magpies strutting about like Freddie Mercury.

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13 thoughts on “One for sorrow, two for more sorrow

  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Fair points. If I felt the same way about everything I’d have nothing to write about!I have favourite creatures(I do like insects)and less favourite ones (cats and magpies. Half the fun of blogging is having a rant!

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    I know this is an old post and don’t want to get too emotional, but this has made me think about how interesting it is that some birders are upset when a bird eats another bird’s brains, but seem quite content with birds slaughtering insects by the million every day, even though they’re just as alive as the birdies. Or that some cat lovers have no problem with strays and ferals wreaking carnage among the bird population, but heavens forbid if a single cat gets mauled by a dog or snatched by an owl. And so on, and so forth.

    All I’m saying is it’s interesting how we choose to love nature selectively.

    (Of course, it’s probably justified if the prey is an endangered species requiring conservation or when the predator is an introduced species that doesn’t belong in the local ecosystem, but even then it’s not really the animals’ fault…)

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Thank you for that, Grahame. Naturenet readers at the cutting edge of developments in the natural world.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Sadly, the anorak fact regarding the highlands of Scotland is no longer correct.

    They’ve started to make an appearance in the area surrounding Inverness and are slowly spreading into Speyside. It’s only been in the past year or so, though.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    It’s what magpies do to baby blackbirds’ brains…

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Jebus! Seems a tad over-the-top and uncalled for – methinks someone hasn’t read the article properly…

    What does ‘suck it up’ even mean?

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    If jays were nesting in my whitebeam I would have moaned about them too. If you read to the end of the article you’ll see that I am leaving the magpies to do their own thing.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    I am so pissed off with everyone and his brother berating magpies! First off, they do what they do people. ‘Tis what nature intended, so suck it up! Secondly, ever heard of Jays? They take more young fledgelings, eggs and anything else they can, in abundance. Read more and learn which birds do what. Jays are responsible on many occasions, but magpies are blamed for all, regardless of whether they are guilty or not. Could it be, I wonder, that Jays are prettier so get less blame? I saw a hawk take a young magpie and pull it to pieces once, and believe me, the screams of that youngster would have torn out even the staunchest hater of the breed. So you see? Magpies have their enemies too. There is only one species on this planet which screws up! Us. Leave the other animals tol do their own thing!

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Cheesy? Susan Strang? Males of a certain age will have a different memory of Magpie…
    as for the birds, well they’re just a bit blatant in their naughtiness, I doubt many would target woodpeckers in the same way but they have traits in common

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Watch this space, Colin – the grey squirrels may well be about to give the magpies the chop…

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Grey Squirrels, Magpies what next for the chop?
    It seems that any animal showing any sort of intelligence (better survival techniques)must be culled to save the rest of the creatures.
    God help us if we get visited by another slightly superior race using the same thought patterns. WE WILL BE THE FIRST FOR THE CHOP
    Nature and all within it usually strikes a reasonable balance (well until we happened by)hence the wonderful diversity.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Yes, tawny owls at night definitely, and often a vixen’s yell. But during the daytime when a body is about to be buried or some horrible secret discovered, invariably they use a magpie. It’s the BBC’s version of the raven’s ‘Nevermore’.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    I thought they always used tawny owls to create a night time woodland atmosphere. I stayed in a cottage in Scotland which had one roosting in the tree outside the bedroom. Every time it Twit Twoo’d my dog barked at it. After that she always barked when she heard one, even on the telly. It was only then that I realised how often they use them to create “atmosphere” in spooky woodland scenes!

    Reply

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