February 06, 2016

Two for joy

Sydenham Hill Wood was full of corvids this morning, the bare branches busy with crows, screeching jays and this handsome pair of magpies:


They get a bad rap, but I rather like magpies. They're incredibly resourceful and full of personality; what's more, they've learned to live alongside humans, and so bring a little life to our cities.

In my 1904 copy of British Birds In Their Haunts, the Revd C A Johns comes out as a reluctant defender of magpies – although he admits they are 'spared by none except avowed preservers of all birds':

'Any one who has had an opportunity of watching the habits of a tame Magpie, must have observed its extreme inquisitiveness and skill in discovering what was intended to be concealed, joined, moreover, to an unscrupulous habit of purloining everything that takes its roving fancy,' he says, half-admiringly. 'Even when surrounded by plenty and pampered by delicacies it prefers a stolen morsel to what is legally its own.'

Is this really a surprise? Anyone who has kept a pet cat will know that two bowls of Whiskas a day does nothing to quench the need to hunt; similarly, magpies need to act out their own foraging instincts. Perhaps it is their 'notoriety as a prowling bandit' that is the problem, for as Johns says, 'In the harrying of birds' nests no schoolboy can compete with it'. Yet magpies are far from alone in eating eggs: squirrels, foxes, hedgehogs, most mustelids and even snakes will raid nests. Nor is it the only bird that kills other birds, of course.

So why such censure for the haggister, or Cornish pheasant? We know now that they have no effect on songbird populations – in stark contrast to our own actions. Is it a dim feudal memory, a dislike of them picked up from gamekeepers and the gentry in times gone by, who wanted to protect their pheasants' and partridges' eggs so they could shoot them later? Or is it because we don't classify the magpie as a predator – as we do the sparrowhawk, for example – and so we see their behaviour as somehow 'unnatural'?

I don't know, but I think it's strange. For me these beautiful, clever birds always mean joy, no matter how many of them there are.