January 5, 2021


What do magpies want?: I am left feeling unnerved by the sudden presence of a bird wreathed in superstition and legend at my kitchen window.  (HELEN MACDONALD, 12/10/20, New Statesman)

We're in second lockdown as I write. The sky outside is rain-wet steel and my garden is littered with fallen leaves I can't quite be bothered to rake. I've fallen far behind with correspondence, and this morning I was trying to catch up with unanswered emails when I glanced up from my laptop on the kitchen table and saw a magpie hoiking itself about my lawn: skittish, suspicious and glamorous all at once, an unlikely combination of Arthur Daley and couture catwalk model. I watched it through the French windows for a while before turning my eyes back to the screen. Then I jumped. The magpie was attempting to get into my kitchen, hopping up and flapping frantically, claws scratching at the pane. Soon it stopped, stood on tiptoes, craned its neck and tilted its head to stare at the kitchen floor before trying to enter the house again.

Magpies are wreathed in superstition and legend. In ancient Rome they were associated with fortune telling and magic; in Christian traditions they were reviled as the only bird that did not mourn the Crucifixion. Across most of Europe they're birds of bad luck, witchcraft and devilry, but in China they portend happiness and good fortune. They're bold, raucous, obvious and familiar creatures, loved and loathed in equal measure, and they still inspire superstitious behaviour. I've met people who doff their hats at magpies, anxiously count their numbers, speak rhymes at them out loud.

As I stared at the magpie battering itself against the glass I thought, suddenly, This means something. It's an omen. My conviction startled me. I'm not prone to magical thinking. I've always scoffed at the notion that birds entering houses is a harbinger of ill fortune, though it's a belief so widely held that the debunking website Snopes has found it necessary to host a page explaining it's merely a legend.

Posted by at January 5, 2021 10:10 AM