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This superstition comes from the counting rhyme about magpies (and sometimes crows), which indicates that to see a single magpie is bad luck. Greeting the magpie is thought to ward off the ill omen.

It may be significant that the collective noun for magpies is "A tidings"

There are several versions of the rhyme, with some similarities and differences. The only universal is that a magpie alone is always the harbinger of misfortune. Some examples are:

One for sorrow, two for mirth,
Three for a wedding, four for a birth,
Five for silver, six for gold,
Seven for a secret not to be told.
Eight for heaven, nine for hell,
And ten for the devil's own sel'.

The Folklore of Birds, by Laura C. Martin, 1993


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, and nine's a kiss,
And ten for a bird you must not miss

Rhyme used for Children's TV programme, "Magpie"


One for sorrow, two for mirth,
Three for a wedding,four for birth,
five for rich, six for poor,
Seven for a witch, I can tell you no more.

The Dictionary of Superstitions, Oxford University Press, 1992


One for sadness, two for mirth;
Three for marriage, four for birth;
Five for laughing, six for crying:
Seven for sickness, eight for dying;
Nine for silver, ten for gold;
Eleven a secret that will never be told.

Unknown source

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