Wild Words: Kirsteen Bell

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The most common bird I see here is the raven. They circle the skies with the gulls and I have counted scores of them winging across the loch at dusk to roost.

But in Ayrshire and Glasgow, where I grew up, it was their pied cousins, the magpie, that most often caught my attention.

With their white breast and wing stripe and velvety black head, back and tail that shine iridescent blues and greens in the light, the magpie is instantly recognisable. Their long straight tail points neatly behind them whether in flight or bobbing along the ground.

Back in Ayrshire for two weeks this summer, I resumed nodding ‘hello maggie’ at any single magpies hopping along the edge of the motorway.

The greeting comes from the rhyme ‘One for Sorrow’. I guess the superstition is that you stave off sorrow by acknowledging the bird. You would imagine they would need all the help they could get in that proximity to thousands of speeding cars, but I think the sorrow is the lonely magpie’s, so by saying hello you are extending your friendship.

Watching a pair dig about in a hanging basket in my friend’s garden, it occurred to me I now miss my wee daredevil pals.

The magpie is instantly recognisable. Photograph: Shutterstock.

For though magpies are prevalent across the UK and Ireland, they are absent from the Highlands. Something about our mountainous region puts them off – maybe the lack of motorways?

In truth, lack of habitat connectivity is a possible influence on magpie distribution. These scavengers thrive in proximity to urban populations where they have greater opportunities to access food. We are the magpie’s friend in more than superstition.

High sandstone walls surround my friend’s garden, one of a row of gardens near the edge of a town. Large sycamore trees hang over each wall. All the time I was there, I could hear magpies laughing from deep within the leaves.

To me, their chittering call sounds like mirth. However, according to one etymology website, the birds used to be known only as ‘pies’ and the ‘mag’ was a 16th century addition referring to the ‘idle chatter’ of women.

I bristled at the implication – yet I sat alone in my friend’s garden as I was house-sitting for her while she was on holiday. I had to admit if she had been there, our cackles would most likely have joined the magpie’s.


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.


MAIN PIC: NO F11 Kirsteen Bell 1


Extra pic: The magpie is instantly recognisable. Photograph: Shutterstock. NO-F31-Magpie-shutterstock