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10 December 2020updated 12 Oct 2023 11:22am

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.     

By Helen Macdonald

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.

[See also: What science can learn from religion]

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.

I’ve seen birds beat themselves against windows many times over the years: chaffinches, wagtails and robins that had worked themselves into territorial rages against intruders that were only ever reflections of themselves. I’ve had wild robins hop around the house searching for spiders, and one summer, a few years ago, I opened the door of my bedroom to discover a pigeon had flown in through the open window and was lying down in a patch of sun on the coverlet of my bed. But the magpie? This was different. Its behaviour was considered. It wasn’t fighting itself in the glass. It was trying to get inside, urgently, desperately, bafflingly.

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The magpie flew off. I opened the door, went outside and checked the glass for obvious reflections. No. Perhaps it thinks there’s food in here, I thought. Maybe this was a hand-reared, orphaned magpie, familiar with people, wanting to come home. But none of these ad hoc theories shifted my overwhelming belief that it was an omen. Such mystical convictions go deep; they’re hard to shake.

[See also: The scampering energy of a 16-year-old’s nature diary]

And then I thought of how many friends on Facebook had fallen down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole over the past year, how fervently and unexpectedly they’d come to believe what seemed to me the wildest, most improbable stories. When the world feels untrustworthy, when things become precarious, frightening and chaotic, it’s not hard to see why we might cleave to narratives that hint at deeper, secret truths. Perhaps, I thought, I could think of the magpie as a cautionary reminder of how easy it is for any of us to fall prey to superstitious behaviour.

I returned to my unanswered emails, but only for a few minutes, because the magpie returned, this time loudly. It shook its feathers, shouting like a box of rattling matches, and restarted its incomprehensible campaign. And this time, as I watched it, fascinated, I realised that part of what made this such an unnerving experience was because Covid has changed how I feel about houses.

The concept of borders has become extraordinarily charged in recent years. In the case of national borders, the tension has been heightened by government and media anti-immigrant rhetoric. But those are not the only borders in our world. Lockdown has felt unnervingly like imprisonment at times, but it’s also made the walls of my house seem less like architectural elements and more like defensive barriers against a dangerous outside world. And the pandemic has meant that while working or shopping we now must pay the utmost attention to our bodies’ own boundaries, wearing masks, washing hands, assessing ventilation, always calculating risks, defending our own borders against the entry of an invisible viral load.

[See also: How will we remember 2020?]​

My kitchen door had become more than a pane of glass; it was a symbolic threshold under threat of violation, a border the outside world was not supposed to cross. The magpie hadn’t just freaked me out because its motives seemed impenetrable. It had triggered in me a spike of pandemic-related invasion anxiety, and that, I realised, was at the heart of why I’d felt that its behaviour carried such portentous weight.

One for sorrow, two for joy. When the magpie returned and started jumping at the glass again I closed my emails and went to Twitter. I posted a photograph of its blurred wings, its upturned beak, described what it was trying to do. My friend S replied to my tweet, telling me of a tradition she had learned from a Roma friend that magpies approach humans when they’re looking for stories to collect.

What the hell, I thought, why not. So I drew the chair closer to the window. Put my arms on my knees, leaned down, and told the magpie a story. It was a story about love, a story told against the fear of invasion. It couldn’t hear me, but it could see my lips move. It stepped back from the window. A flurry of wings above, and a second magpie descended from the roof to land next to it. They both looked at me through the glass, then turned as one and wandered away across the lawn. 

Helen Macdonald’s essay collection “Vesper Flights”, including pieces first published in the New Statesman, is published by Jonathan Cape

This reflection is part of the New Statesman Christmas Special, also featuring Tracey Thorn, Grayson Perry, Helen Lewis, Joni Mitchell, Ian Hislop, John Gray, Stephen Bush, Jacqueline Wilson, William Boyd and much more of the best new writing.

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special