Magpies, Misunderstood


Wonderbound presents Winter, a multi-sensory production taking audience engagement to a whole new level. The original fairy tale written by Garrett Ammon (is there anything he can’t do?) that explores the archetype of the magpie and its symbolism in European folklore.

Magpies very often carry a negative connotation—they are omens of ill fortune in Western cultures—but are in fact quite intelligent. These birds are thought to be as smart as dolphins and apes; they can recognize their own reflections and have even been observed mourning the death of other magpies. Throughout history, the magpie has been portrayed as devilish and unlucky, though I think that’s an unfair assessment.


Let’s take a look at some classic mythology regarding these not-so-foul fowl. Superstition surrounding the magpie originated with the Church of England. It was told that when Jesus was crucified, two birds came to perch on his cross. One was a dove, the other a magpie. The dove grieved for Jesus, but the magpie did not; from that point onward, magpies were eternally damned in the eyes of Christianity, and thus, the rest of European civilization. If you grew up in England during the late 1700s, you should be familiar with this nursery rhyme:

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.


The number of magpies one saw together would determine one’s fate. There are many variations of this rhyme, but my personal favorite is the version originally recorded:

One for sorrow, Two for mirth, Three for a wedding, And four for death.

Short and sweet and to the point, though I’m not entirely sure “death” rhymes with “mirth.” At any rate, the sighting of a magpie or group of magpies was taken to mean different things; however, the sighting of a single magpie always signified bad luck. If you do happen to chance upon a lone magpie, never fear, for there are certain measures you may take to avoid imminent tragedy:

  • Salute the bird.

  • Pinch the person you are with, or, if solo, pinch yourself.

  • Doff your hat.

  • Address the bird. Acceptable greetings include “Good morning, Mr. Magpie,” “Morning, captain,” or “Hello Mr. Magpie, how is your lady wife today?”

  • Spit over your shoulder.

  • Flap your arms to imitate wings and caw several times. Instead of one magpie, there are now two!

You may implement one or more of these strategies to ward off bad juju, depending on how superstitious you are.

Magpies have been villainized since the dawn of Christianity, but there is one story that actually acknowledges their intelligence. It is The Magpie’s Nest, an English fairy tale collected by Joseph Jacobs. It tells of a magpie building a nest for herself; all the other birds gather around to watch because she is the most clever nest builder.

The magpie demonstrates each step of the process and, one by one, each bird flies away prematurely, thinking they have witnessed the end of the presentation. Finally, the only bird remaining is the turtledove, who has not been paying attention the entire time. She keeps repeating, “Take two, Taffy, take two” to herself, and the magpie responds that one is enough. The magpie looks up from her work and realizes all the other birds have left. She is angry, and refuses to teach anymore; this is why birds build their nests differently.

The Magpie’s Nest may not totally redeem the magpie’s image, but at least it doesn’t further sully its reputation. This poor bird (among other groups) has been marginalized by Western society for hundreds and hundreds of years, and to this day it has been unable to shake the evil association.

Wonderbound’s production of Winter weaves a new story with old roots; the magpie is the symbol, the darkness, the omen. This bird will always represent something grim, something to be feared, so long as it remains an enigma to us.