Earlier this week, just as the sun was rising over the houses, I saw eight magpies sitting in a tree at the bottom of my garden. eight of them. I know that magpies in groups are supposed to have special significance …one meaning sorrow, two meaning joy, three for a girl, four for a boy and so on …but eight?
Tradition says that the magpie is a spooky bird. A cunning, arrogant creature associated with magic, fortune telling and the paranormal. Apparently, it was the only bird not to go into the ark with Noah. Instead it sat on the roof, swearing and chattering as the world around it drowned. It is also alleged to be the only bird not to sing to comfort Jesus when he was on the cross and with its black and white plumage, the only bird not to enter all-black mourning on his death. It is also said that the Devil’s blood runs in his veins and he is often associated with death because of its habit of eating dead animals… but does this help when it comes to eight of them sitting in a tree at the bottom of the garden?
A lone magpie is supposed to be unlucky. Magpies often mate for life so seeing a single magpie on its own may mean it has lost its mate and is therefore the bringer of bad luck. Tradition says that to ward off that bad luck you might salute the bird or say ‘Good morning Mr Magpie, how is your lady wife today?’ As an alternative you could spit three times over your shoulder or flap your arms like wings and caw loudly to mimic the magpie’s missing mate. It is also reputed to be attracted towards bright objects like jewellery or coins as dramatised in the BBC dark comedy ‘Detectorists’ and sung here by The Unthanks… spooky!
Detectorists by The Unthanks
But as evocative as the song and the associated images are they do not answer the question - what is the significance of eight magpies? ‘Five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret never told’…and then the rhyme falls off a cliff into nothingness.
There is an answer and it is to be found not with medieval mysticism or druidic chants but with a 1970’s children’s TV magazine programme made just up the road in Teddington. The programme ran from 196eight-19eight0 and was called ‘Magpie’, taking its title from the magpie’s habit of collecting small items.
The programme’s theme song was written by Spencer Davis, Ray Fenwick and Eddie Hardin of the Spencer Davis Group masquerading at the time as the Murgatroyd Band. Their lyrics extended beyond seven and the ‘secret never to be told’ to ‘Eight for a wish, Nine for a kiss and Ten is the bird you must not miss.’ So that’s it. See eight magpies and you can make a wish…and that is what I did. I made a wish. Of course I can’t tell you what the wish is because of magpie number 7…. That’s a secret never told!
– from Martyn Day