British, Culture

A British Superstition: Hello Mr Magpie, How’s Your Wife?

Does this title ring any bells with you? If you are superstitious about magpies then asking, “hello Mr Magpie, how’s your wife?” will be something that you do on a regular basis. In fact, every time you see a lonesome magpie.

A British Superstition: Hello Mr Magpie, How's Your Wife?

One Magpie Bad, Two or More Good

I was cycling with my eldest back from the podo (not at bad as it sounds) and I saluted a lone magpie and mumbled under my breath. My son asked me why I did it.

Where I come from (England) folklore has it that a lone magpie is a bad omen. As the childhood ditty goes, seeing one magpie brings sorrow.

If you see two, however, you’re ok:

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
Eight’s a wish
Nine’s a kiss
Ten is a bird you must not miss

Superstitious But in a Sane Way

I have to admit that I do have a real thing about seeing a magpie alone. It’s my only superstition or ‘weird’ thing. (I don’t walk under ladders either but that is more a common sense thing than superstition.)

If I see a magpie, I ask him how he’s doing and enquire about his spouse.

Don’t worry, I do it under my breath in a muttering kind of way, as opposed to a full blown  ‘everyone can hear me’ voice. I try not to appear like a complete rambling lunatic wandering the streets talking to birds.

To accompany the muttering I also salute the magpie as subtly as possible, again to prevent my neighbours and random people in the street, train or school playground from thinking I am a few sandwiches short of a picnic.

Magpies Don’t Bother the Dutch

When my Dutch husband first bore witness to my mumbling, saluting spectacle he was a little perturbed. He had not seen it before. It meant nothing to him.

A British thing maybe? I know I am not alone – a good friend never lets a magpie go by without an acknowledgement either.

However, it would seem the Dutch are not perturbed by magpie folklore, if my husband is typical.

Why is Seeing One Magpie Unlucky?

Why does the magpie have such a reputation of ill luck? Well, there are lots of theories, folklore and plain nonsense on this topic. There is no denying that magpies are a bit naughty. They steal nice, shimmery, silver things. That fact alone doesn’t put them in anyone’s good books.

They are also downright aggressive. They chase away tuneful songbirds from the garden and steal eggs from nests. I can attest to this as two years ago we had a pair of nesting wood pigeons in our garden. Those poor birds were hounded, cajoled and attacked until they abandoned the nest and the magpies presumably took the eggs.

I was also traumatised as a teenager watching a magpie scoop up a duckling from its mother and fly away with it. Presumably not to keep as a pet.

One Magpie Brings Death

Scottish folklore tells that a magpie near the window of a house signifies that death will come to the house. This rings in my ears too.

Many years ago my grandad was hospitalised with cancer. We were told to expect the worst and prepare ourselves for the end. He wouldn’t be going back home. My mum and her sister kept a bedside vigil and me, my brother and my cousins visited when we could.

One morning my mum and aunt went outside for a breather. Whilst stood outside the front of the hospital a single magpie flew down in front of them. They instinctively knew to go back inside.

They hurried to his room and my mum described that it was as if he had waited for them to return. He looked at them both and passed away peacefully.

It is a story that will stay with me forever: and it’s the main reason why you may just catch me mumbling and saluting in the company of magpies. I’m taking no chances.

Over to You: What superstitions are related to your home or host country? Is a single magpie a bad omen in your home or host country?

A British Superstition_ Hello Mr Magpie, How's Your Wife? 2


3 thoughts on “A British Superstition: Hello Mr Magpie, How’s Your Wife?”

  1. I am a Portuguese living in France. French don’t think good about magpies, but they just believe they bring bad luck. Portuguese, on the other hand, think that a magpie who comes inside the house means death. Otherwise, nothing will happen. Now, I wouldn’t like to scare you but… once a bird came inside my home. And a friend died some days latter. Truth to be told, I’m not sure it was a magpie.


  2. I’m a Dutchie, and I’ve never heard of any Dutch superstitions about magpies.
    There might be something regional (I’m from the Utrecht area), but not likely anything as elaborate as that counting rhyme.
    I wonder where that came from? From my experience, magpies tend to come in pairs or families (parents plus young birds), and each pair defends their territory. Not like rooks, which do live in colonies. So why is there such a counting rhyme about magpies, and not rooks, which exhibit much of the same behaviour (like harrassing smaller birds) except for larger groups to count?

    Liked by 1 person

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