Letter from a Magpie
To whom it may concern.
I wish to register a protest. Not just on behalf of magpies, but on behalf of animals everywhere. I wish to state in the strongest possible terms my belief that when an animal such as the magpie is given a bad press, it is criticised for those habits which are nearest to human habits. I would go further. I would say that you humans hate those animals which are most human, and you love those animals which are least human.
Does this sound improbable? Well, you only have to listen to your own children when they go through a picture book of animals. It is not the clever animals they are drawn to - it is the stupid ones. Listen to them melting over the baby cows and the little lambs and the baby rabbits. Moo cows, and baa lambs, pussy cats and bunny rabbits, I believe you call them. If I were an animal which humans had given a pet name to, I would start running and never stop, because when humans give animals pet names, it means they are about to steal their milk, eat them and turn their skin into clothes.
Nobody has ever called me a dear little magpie. That is because you cannot fatten me up and eat me, or turn my feathers into warm winter clothing. Instead, I am classed along with wolves and foxes and sharks and crocodiles as a kind of killer animal. You don't have vultures in Britain but you have to have villains, so I get the part instead. Oh, look, you say - here comes a nasty magpie! It will steal the baby birds and eat the eggs and take little animals... chase it away! But do you know why you are chasing me away? It is because I am so like you, and because everything I take is something that you want!
Think about it for a moment. Like all birds, I get hungry. Like all birds, I have to eat. But compared to most birds I have a very wide diet. I eat eggs. Yes, I eat small animals. But I also eat grain. I eat fruit. I eat insects. Insects form 80% of my diet, in fact. I am not one of those birds that eat just nuts or worms. I have what you might call a varied and well-balanced diet. Can you think of another animal that has that? Yes, indeed. Man. Man likes to eat a bit of everything, from fish and fowl to fruit and flour. When human beings do not eat a bit of everything, you criticise yourselves for having a restricted diet. And yet when I try to eat a bit of everything, I am called a killer, a predator, a thief, a bandit... I am merely trying to balance my diet. The only mistake I have ever made is to attack the young of game birds, which for some reason are thought to belong exclusively to human beings...
Did you know, by the way, that the one human characteristic which is most resented by the rest of nature is your assumption that nature is there simply for your use? That trees are there simply for you to cut down, and fields for you to plough up? And seas for you to denude of fish? When you see what human beings have done to nature, you might be forgiven for wondering why magpies get any criticism...
But we all know the answer, at least if we have a smattering of psychology - we all like to off-load criticism of ourselves on to the nearest available creatures. And so magpies get a bad reputation for occasionally doing what golden eagles also do. Strange how golden eagles never get a bad press. That is because golden eagles have the sense to keep to the tops of the highest mountains. And do you know why they do? Not because they like the cold or the space or because they need the solitude to recite poetry to themselves all day long. No, it's simply because they are getting as far as possible from man, whom they see as the natural enemy.
To come back to this question of villains and good guys ... I can't help noticing that humans have an irresistible urge to divide the natural world into goodies and baddies. Vultures are baddies. Nightingales are goodies. Foxes are baddies. Red deer are goodies. None of this has the least connection with reality - indeed, the reality is that there are no goodies or baddies in nature - but you might reflect, next time you look at a red deer and think how sweet it is, that it has killed off almost all the native trees in Scotland and goes on doing so.
I feel aggrieved about this, because the magpie has also acquired a villainous reputation, that of killing off your native songbirds. To read our bad press, you would think we spent our spare time lurking around your gardens, waiting till a particularly tuneful bird struck up, then pouncing, as if we hated the very sound of music! We don't. But there is an animal that does. Shall I tell you its name? It's called the cat. Yes, when it comes to slaughtering the British population of harmless, tuneful, garden-loving birds such as thrushes and blackbirds, there is nothing to rival your own little pussy-cat. But the cat is a human pet, so it is psychologically almost impossible for you to see the truth about this skulking, murderous, vile, sadistic creature. The cat that you see curled up in its basket, purring as you caress its chin, is very different from the cat that I see, out in the hedgerow like Jack the Ripper, hunting and killing for pleasure. Aaagh!
I'll let you into another secret. If there is a baddy in nature, it is not the magpie, and it is not even the cat. It is man. All nature sees man as the enemy. Man destroys everything and saves nothing. What has man ever preserved? Oh yes, you have protected species all right, but have you ever stopped to consider that a protected species is always one which mankind has almost exterminated and then had second thoughts about? When a species needs protecting, it is always from man that it needs protecting... I'm sorry. I was getting on to one of my hobby horses there. I have a bit of a magpie mind. Forgiveable in a magpie, of course. Where was I...?
Oh, yes, I was saying that mankind always condemns animals for behaviour which, on inspection, turns out to be most like human behaviour. Some animals - myself included - are castigated for being killers. At least we do not kill each other in large numbers, as humans do. And I am not talking just about warfare. 5,000 deaths on British roads last year, was it not? I think it was. And that was just human deaths. I tremble to think how many hedgehogs, foxes, badgers and birds you slaughtered...
The thieving magpie. I think that is what hurts me most. Being called a thief. By humans. Humans have stolen most of the world for their own use, and I am called a thief for occasionally, while in captivity, taking a small object and not putting it back. In the wild, believe me, I have no time for nicking small things and going around shoplifting - I am far too busy in the wild to imitate humans and become a thief - I have to spend my time building nests and bringing up families and finding enough to eat. I do not have time for idle hobbies such as superstition...
I think you know what I am talking about. One for sorrow, two for joy. Three for a girl. Four for a boy. The first time I heard people doing this I could not believe my ears. Counting magpies and predicting the future on the basis of it. I have heard you people saying this, seriously. I have thought to myself: How can a species be clever enough to enslave the whole of nature and stupid enough to go around saying, One for sorrow, two for joy...
What else do people say about me? That I have a harsh voice? Yes, I have heard that. Humans, of course, make no noise. Humans of course do not create motorways and jet aeroplanes and rock music. Oh no, of course not... I am sorry. I must resist the temptation to score points off humanity. It is so easy - it is hardly worth doing. I would simply like to point out that generally speaking, the harsher the voice, the more beautiful the bird. It is true, you know. Go to the tropics and you will find the most extraordinary birds to look at - hoopoes, orioles, birds of paradise. You will also find that they all sound worse than me. Yes, I do not have much of a voice. But I am one of the most striking birds you will ever see in Britain. From a distance I look a stunning black and white. Closer to you will say that I am iridescent. I am never quite sure what iridescent is, but I am certainly iridescent, because I have often heard people say so. You are, if I may say so, lucky to have magpies in this country. Your birds are on the whole so boring and so predictable. If they are not completely dowdy like the sparrow, then they make a dull noise like, well, like the sparrow again. Nothing much duller than a sparrow. Yet when did you ever hear anyone say: 'as dull as a sparrow'? Life isn't always very fair, is it?
One of the unfairest things that ever happened to a bird is what happened to the magpie when it found itself part of the crow family. We were immediately lumped in with these black, sinister, ominous looking birds who have all managed to acquire the reputation of being scavengers and killers of smaller birds. Even the way a rook flaps across a field can look threatening, or disreputable. I always think, when I see a rook, that it looks somehow out of work, unemployed, unemployable. Do you know what I mean? I feel even more suspicious when I see a carrion crow. Why? For the very good reason that a carrion crow is one of the few birds that have the nerve and the audacity to attack me - yes, they actually invade my nest and try to take my young ones. Have you ever seen a magpie's nest? Made of sticks, top and bottom. Do you know why it has thorns on top? To try to keep carrion crows out. To try to ward off an attack from members of my supposed family.
Oh, and while I think about it, I would like to deal with the often heard rumour that magpies peck the eyes out of sheep and other animals. We don't. We peck sheep, it is true. But only to get the insects out of their skins and off their backs. I could easily use that as a line of defence, of course. I could say that I do humans a great deal of good by ridding sheep of their ticks and by eating all those insects which humans hate so much and attacking little pests like mice... I could say that I am a good little magpie and a hidden ally of mankind...
But I don't choose that line of defence. Shall I tell you why? It's because I don't want to lower myself to being just another item in the human balance sheet. Human beings fool themselves into thinking that they judge nature impartially... admire its beauty... disapprove of its cruelty and so on... But this is a delusion. Humanity judges all nature according to its usefulness to humans. That is all. Nothing more or less. Ladybirds are very good insects, because they eat greenfly, you hear people say. Mosquitoes are very bad insects because they bring malaria. But why should it be good to eat greenfly? Because greenfly eat roses, and humans like roses, of course. Why is malaria a bad thing? Because only humans get it, of course!
Well, I refuse to lower myself to this sort of crude Thatcherite view of nature. Nature is more complex than that. Nature is more interesting than that. I am more interesting than that. And I will tell you something very interesting about magpies in Britain today. Our population is increasing. We are a success story. Magpies are one of the biggest success stories in Britain since the demise of so much gamekeeping...
God save me, I am beginning to sound Thatcherite myself. I think I had better stop there. Many rude things have been said about magpies. I would not wish 'gross materialist' to be added to the list. However, I would not object to being called an 'opportunist'. Yes, I think 'opportunist' would sum me up. I have always had to take what I can get. And I am not one of those birds that go in for mugging and pickpocketing. I am not like an owl that skulks around at night, breaking and entering. I have not been given the looks of a petty thief. I am, though I say it myself, a damned handsome fellow, with a very distinguished appearance, a bit like a flying waistcoat, with a certain amount of dash. It pains me beyond belief that you could possibly think I am a petty thief. Look at me! Do I look like a petty criminal? Do I not look more like a film star? Have you ever seen me get in a fight? Then you will know how fast I can move and how speedily I can out-manoeuvre almost everything.
Or have you perhaps seen a gang of magpies together in what they call a Parliament of magpies? Yes, you don't often see more than two or three of us in one place, but in the springtime we sometimes gather in our hundreds in the trees to watch a couple of magpies dispute some territory. It must drive the superstitious among you humans round the bend. One for sorrow, two for joy, two hundred and twenty-five for... for what? And we sit in the trees and make a terrible noise for a moment, indulging in a bit of horseplay, and you call it a Parliament because it reminds you of your Parliament. Well, let me remind you that you have a Parliament making a terrible noise all the year round. We do it just one day a year. Who comes out of the comparison better? We have a villainous reputation because, very occasionally, we take things that do not belong to us. You raid nature every day, in every possible way. Who comes out of it smelling sweeter? I do not think it is I who should be writing an open letter in my defence. I think it is you who should be in the dock. That is all I have to say. Good day to you.
BBC Natural History Unit Radio 4
Read by Timothy West