A Magpie Parliament? February 11, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback
***Dedicated to Ed***
Magpies are often seen in small groups and this has had a predictable reflex in folklore where there is a charming rhyme (with some regional variations) that children still learn in the UK: One [magpie] for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy… As to bigger groups Beach has been fascinated over the years by accounts of the Magpie Parliament or the Parliament of the Magpies as it is also called. Legend (and some ornithologists) have it that on very rare occasions tens of magpies, indeed, as many as three hundred come together in a parliament out of sight of prying humans. There they debate issues and squawk and then disappear into the trees and hedgerows from out of which they had slunk. There are various discussions online as to what biological purpose the magpie parliament holds. It used to be claimed that magpies found their mates here, for example, or that it was ‘on the benches’ that magpies sorted out local hierarchies, magpie territory is normally divvied up by magpie couples.
But does the parliament really even exist? The rhyme typically goes up to seven magpies (ten or thirteen in some areas), and after several decades of trying Beach can state categorically that it is very rare to get past five out in the country. OK I can imagine a situation where in a piece of open land some outstanding carrion could tempt up to twenty magpies out of the surrounding woods. What is striking on the net, despite some vague claims to have seen magpies ‘in session’ in dozens and even hundreds is that there are no detailed accounts (that we can find). Also crucially there are no photographs or films (again that we can find). Is this, then, an example of a folklore ‘fact’ that has accidentally fallen into ornithology text books? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com There are several descriptions of animals coming together that sound suspiciously like wishful thinking homo-sapiens style. There is the crow parliament where hundreds of crows gather: and where according to some a single crow is killed, ‘a murder of crows’. Crows are even more solitary than magpies and isn’t there a little too much anthropomorphism here? Was the magpies’ parliament even borrowed from their cousins the crows? Then there is the elephants’ graveyard, where all good elephants slope off to die. There are descriptions of huge dolphin gatherings in the sea: including this beautifully written one. There is the rat king: which certainly sounds legendary. Please let the rat king be legendary… The idea that the noise under the stairs is ten little critters with their tails tied together is just too much for mortal mind.
10 Feb 2013: A unique occurrence in the history of this blog: a pre-publication comment from Pater Beachcombing after a discussion about magpie habits on the phone. PB is an ornithologist and he claims that he has seen sixty or seventy magpies roosting at dusk. Beach finds this hard to believe, but this is his father speaking so we are going to let it pass. More incredible still, PB described going out walking and coming across a circle of between twenty and thirty magpies. Two of the magpies were jousting, flying at each other. One knocked the other to the ground and then jumped on his chest and pecked at his enemy without drawing blood: pretty restrained for a magpie that would normally go for the eyes. PB has the most appalling politics and is quite capable of subconsciously manipulating what he sees, but he is honest. It looks like some version of the magpie parliament really is, then, called into session from time to time. Nettled by this we went to Swainson’s Folklore of British Birds and found no reference to the parliament, nor was there any reference in other nineteenth-century books on folklore, at least not any that we could find.
11 Feb 2012: Pater Beachcombing now writes in with the detailed entry from his journal! The numbered part is his attempt to explain things from his bird library. ‘This is what happened 9/1/2013: I was coming off the hill, down through the marginal farmland below the moor on the eastern fringe of the Manchester conurbation. It was murky and foggy, and, as I got past the farm near the top of a housing estate, I could hear the noisy repetitive chattering noise of a fracas of magpies. When I got there I could see a few crows and jackdaws were in attendance, watching, bouncing around in nearby trees and bushes as they watched the magpies gathered in a group of big hawthorns. The noise stopped as I came into view, and they all flew off into the gloom further down the hill. I followed the noise and caught up with them near an unsurfaced country park car park surrounded by rough open ground, bushes and a hedge. I slowed down this time, approached carefully, and watching through some hawthorn, had a good view with binns from c. 50/60 yards, of what followed: two magpies were on the ground in the middle of the car park, apparently fighting, jumping up at each other, jabbing each other with their beaks; about a dozen other magpies were watching intently from the bushes around the edge of the car park; the two adversaries continued to jump up off the ground, but were now jabbing at each other with their feet; one was pushed down onto the ground and lay on its back while the dominant one stood on it and pecked at it with its beak; the weaker one pushed back with its feet, and succeeded in pushing the aggressor off; for about twenty seconds they flew at each other again leading with their feet, fluttering higher than before, up to about human adult waist height; their feet seemed to become entangled; they fell back down to the ground, each then standing and bouncing around; they both then flew up onto a fence, alighted side by side, for a spot of flapping and preening. Neither of them seemed to be hurt. There was no sign of any blood .The magpies, including the combatants, and the attendant crows and jackdaws, then all flew off, together, into the gloom. Or was the ‘loser’ of the fight being chased? The incident had taken three, perhaps four minutes, and I’d been quite spell bound. You just never know what you’re going to see! But what was happening? I’ve been going through my books and I can’t find mention of a ‘Magpie Parliament’ as I thought I would. But I’ve got mixed up – confused again! It turns out the word ‘parliament’ is associated with Rooks. People have witnessed occasions where two or three or four Rooks have been surrounded by 30-40 Rooks in a circle. After a few minutes the encircling birds have attacked and killed the ones in the middle – as if it had been a ‘trial and execution’. (Birds Britannica p 416). However, I’ve found several possible explanations – apparently there are different theories: 1) Magpies can gather at a food source or to mob a predator – I once saw a sparrowhawk take its feral pigeon kill into a tree whereupon several magpies landed all around it in the tree, cackling on, apparently trying to make it drop the prey. One even pulled the raptor’s tail! However there was no food involved on the occasion described above. 2) This gathering happened at about 11.30am, so it was nothing to do with the pre-roost assemblies that occur during winter afternoons ahead of dusk. 3) Or does it relate to their pre-breeding ceremonial gatherings. I have a note in one book from a 1990 Radio4 programme to the effect that young, first time breeders use these gatherings to find a mate, though it’s not stated whether it’s the male or the female that does the choosing. 3) Ceremonial gatherings of 8-10, or up to 50 birds occur between December & April and these have given rise to considerable speculation. The birds noisily chase each other around. One suggestion is that this represents “different stages in territory acquisition by immature birds, including taking territory by force.” The immature birds get attacked by the older birds. (Tim Birkhead p 364 in the BTO 1986 Winter Atlas) But the event described above seemed to be between just two individuals, with the others acting as onlookers. 4) Vol 8 of Birds of the Western Paleartic, p 63 refers to a dominance hierarchy amongst non-breeders. Was the magpie fight, if not about leadership, then about position in the heirarchy of the local flock of the immatures/non-breeders? [By pure coincidence – how’s this for a tangent? – I’d been thinking about another species, as I’d begun reading The Clockwork Orange. Near the beginning there is a passage when the gang are in a caff, where the leader says “There has to be a leader. Discipline there has to be. Right?…. I… have been in charge long now. We are all droogs, but someone has to be in charge. Right? Right?” And a page further on, “I leaned across Georgie, who was between me and horrible Dim, and fisted Dim skorry on the rot…. ‘What did you do that for?’ he said in his ignorant way….. ‘For being a bastard with no manners and not the dook of an idea how to comport yourself publicwise, O my brother.’ “] 5) Perhaps there is more recent research? Incidentally, far from making it a fruitless morning, the foggy conditions enabled me to get closer to the magpies than I probably would have been able to. If the visability had been better, then the magpies would probably seen me more clearly and flown off – as they did when I first arrived along the path from the fields wondering what was going on. Higher up the hill the fog helped me get close to two lots of Fieldfares feeding on the pasture, which was great as I was helping with the winter thrush surveys. Also I was only about 70 yards from a pair of Buzzards sitting, apparently as a pair, on adjacent fence posts. I suspect they’re part of their continued spread out from Wales, across Cheshire and now up around the eastern side of the city. So it had been a terrific morning – in spite of the discouraging weather!’ Then comes Alison: I thought I’d write and mention that I once saw something that looked like a magpie wake or funeral. I live in Edmonton, AB (Canada) and we have many magpies in the city. I used to live next to a park where they nested and was frequently woken in the early morning hours by their squawking. They have particular agitated squawks when, for instance, a cat is roaming about. One morning I was woken by the most raucous squawking I’d heard. The only thing equal to it was once when a cat had actually managed to nab one of them. I finally got out of bed to see what the racket was about. Right below my window was a patch of grass outlined with a short metal fence. On the fence were perched between five and eight magpies and lying on the grass was a dead one. It didn’t appear to have died violently. It was just lying there. (It was right after West Nile got here and there were a number of dead crows and magpies that summer.) The other magpies were chattering and squawking to each other and to the dead one. One by one they would fly or walk up to it and squawk away very earnestly at it (they didn’t touch it). Then they’d return to their place and talk amongst themselves a bit more. Then another one would approach the dead one and squawk at it for a while. It went on for at least 10 minutes that I was watching and probably longer considering how long I ignored them to start with. Then they all eventually flew away. One of the most fascinating things I’ve ever seen. Thanks PB and thanks Alison!
15 Feb 2013: Bob S. writes in: I have heard many stories of gatherings of rooks or crows, or occasionally other birds or animals (see Living Wonders by R.M.J [Bob] Rickard and Paul Seiveking (1982) for two relevant chapters ‘Animal Courts and Councils’ and ‘Wakes and Funerals’ p. 150-153). I have found some references to groups of magpies gathering in numbers, which certainly seem to me to be unusual these days, and one of a “clumping” of magpies together that seems very strange.Magpies congregate in considerable numbers, sometimes from twenty to thirty in a flock. Probably the want of wood keeps them together as a precautionary measure; and they have a scout, like the crow, who looks out for danger while his companions are feeding. They are wild, and take long flights on being disturbed. Edward Jesse Gleanings in Natural History (1842), p. 74‘When eighteen years old, or thereabouts, I met with something of the same kind [birds clustering together]: there was a difference, indeed, in the birds, for on this occasion they were magpies—not birds of song, but of noise. I went out with my brother, now in the navy, one fine moonlight winter night, to shoot wood-pigeons in a neighbouring plantation. The wind was high, and we expected to find them in a sheltered place, where the soil was deep, and the spruce firs had grown high. As I went cowering along, looking through the branches between me and the moon, I saw what seemed as large as a well-filled knapsack, fixed on the top of a long slender ash tree, which had struggled up in spite of the firs, which you know grow very rapidly. I pointed it out to my brother, and, seizing the shaft of the tree, shook it violently, when, if one magpie fell to the ground, there were not less than twenty dropped in a lump at my feet. Away they flew screaming in all directions. One only remained on the spot which they occupied on the tree, and I shot it, and so settled what kind of birds had been huddled together to avoid the cold. I looked at them before I shook them down for a minute’s space or more, and could see neither heads nor feet; it seemed a bundle of old clouts or feathers.’ (Account of Mr Alan Cunningham, quoted by Edward Jesse in Gleanings in Natural History (1842), p. 231-2. At this season the magpies, which usually live stealthily apart in pairs, may sometimes be seen in small flocks, as though assembling for migration; but food rather than travel is the object of their gathering. The Countryside (ed. E. Kay Robinson) Vol. 3 p.298 (16 October 1906). Thanks Bob!
16 Feb 2013: Diana writes in with this: ‘I was an environmental educator for over 15 years and crows (and ravens) are some of my absolutely most favorite birds. A murder of crows is just a term for a flock of crows. Ravens come to eat the flesh of dead things, but the crows usually come to eat the maggots off dead things. Supposedly, murder victims have be be found by paying attention to where these birds gather. Crow beaks aren’t very strong for ripping flesh. Although I’ve been stabbed at by captive crows, they never broke the skin. Not sure though, they could have been “pulling their punches”. One of the 2 “education” crows I cared for (animals that had been injured, rehabbed but were unreleasable and used in presentations to children) had taught himself to say “hello” so who can say whether he meant to hurt when he pecked? Also, at least in the U.S., crows have a very poor reputation for supposedly eating corn (maize) in the fields. Again, it’s actually their fondness for insects like corn borers that caused this misconception. ‘ Thanks Diana!
28 july 2013: Invisible writes in: Blackbirds at Prayer. Here is the latest form the Parkhurst correspondent: “For the last ten years millions of blackbirds have annually gathered in a cedar swamp near here. “I was in the swamp last week, mending a hedge fence, and made a discovery. They were holding camp meetings, the row of sleek, fine-looking birds on the top of the tallest tree I think were ministers, and as I watched, one of them spread his wings and talked in low, earnest tones, and the multitude bowed their heads. “Then he said something to them in blackbird and all the birds in one tree began to sing and several in the audience also joined in. The services then began and were conducted by an old bird with part of his tail gone. There was some flirting and tittering going on in the back trees, but most of the audience were quiet. It looked to me as though many of the birds were asleep. “When the meeting closed, every bird began to talk, and such chin music I never heard before. Then they flew away to a field of grain and destroyed an acre in ten minutes.” Kennebec Journal. Mexico Missouri Message 24 November 1904: p. 7 Thanks Invisible!