Two for joy?

You know that old rhyme about magpies?

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret that’s never been told.

It used to be challenging to see more than one or two at a time – and if you were unlucky enough to spot only one, you just had to accept the ‘sorrow’ suggestion. But these days, on Primrose Hill and in Regent’s Park, it’s much more usual to see a whole lot of magpies at once – and so now, if you see only one, you just have to wait a few seconds and its friends and relations will be along. In fact, maybe we need some additions to the rhyme – I saw nine together last autumn.

These days I’m watching a pair of magpies make a nest in the tree outside our front window. It was a complete mess at first, just a random-looking heap of twigs. I thought they must be young birds, and that perhaps it was their first attempt at a nest. But they’ve done a lot of hard twig carrying and twig weaving in the last week, and the nest suddenly looks much more stable.

It’s very interesting to watch the two magpies at work. At first they just took turns to arrive back in the tree with a beakful of twig, and the hardest bit seemed to be getting a long twig through the branches and into the nest site – oftentimes they’d both back in, twisting their heads around to clear the path. But now one of them stays inside the nest, and since I can’t see inside I can only guess that it’s the female in there, maybe adjusting the lining and smoothing everything down. But the other bird, probably the male, keeps bringing long twigs in, though, so perhaps they’re not up to the lining bit of the job?

It makes me realise how little we – or at least, how little I – know about the secret life of birds. This couple are apparently so purposeful and hard working, but I haven’t a clue how they know what to do, or how they adjust their activities in the light of circumstances (available nest sites, size of available twigs, placement of nest materials, and so on). I can only watch and marvel at their dedication.

Here’s the nest with magpie number one inside, and magpie number two arriving with a twig. You can just see the long horizontal twig sticking out of his (her?) beak on the right, as he (she?) backs carefully over to the nest.

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