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Eurasian magpie

Eurasian magpies (Pica pica) are black and white birds of the corvid family, known for their exceptional intelligence and notorious for their love of shiny objects. A large number of related or similar birds around the world are also known as magpies, but Pica pica were the first to get the name. They eat varied diets - mainly insects and worms, but they are not averse to carrion and some vegetable foods, and they will occasionally swoop down onto small birds and devour them. They are about 18 inches long, but most of that is tail. Their most characteristic sound is a rapid chattering call, something like a hostile laugh, but they are vocally versatile. In captivity, like other birds of the crow family, they have been known to imitate human speech.

One for sorrow, two for joy

These are social birds that usually mate for life, and they often share a roost with many other magpies, especially in the winter. This makes them natural candidates for a counting rhyme - you can almost always get past that ominous 'one for sorrow' if you look around. Groups of magpies are called tidings. Magpies themselves have been known to master the art of counting, and they are adept at dividing portions fairly amongst their young. They are generally thought to be some of the most intelligent animals around, on a level with monkeys and squids and significantly smarter than most dogs.

Three for a girl, four for a boy

I said before that they are black and white, but that's only half-true - their tail and wing feathers, black at first glance, shimmer with a blue-green iridescence when they catch the light. Their markings are described as pied, a term which derives from their earlier name, 'pie'. Slightly oddly, they do not fit the normal definition of pied markings, which are usually asymmetric. Religious robes were the first things to be described as 'pied', but now the term is mostly used of animals and pipers. The food we call pie may have been named after the birds as well, probably for their love of collecting together seemingly random objects. The older name for magpies can be traced back to their Latin name, pica, from a root having to do with sharpness, like the modern English 'pick' and indeed the Spanish word 'pica'. Whether this was for the sharpness of their beak, tail or intellect is unclear. Pica is also the word for a pathological urge to eat things that are not food, apparently named after magpies' unfussy diets. The birds started being known as maggoty-pies in the late 16th century, from a shortening of Margaret rather than an association with larvae - not that a magpie would turn up its beak at such juicy treats. The French called them Margot-la-pie, and in modern France a female magpie is a mèrgot while the bird in general is still a pie. Compare Tom-Tit, Cock-Robin and Ralph.

Five for a fiddler, six for a dance

Although they are not known for their singing, magpies turn up in a lot of songs, including several by really excellent artists. Both Beth Orton and The Mountain Goats have songs called 'Magpie', and Maddy Prior sings a folk song of the same name which incorporates a version of the counting rhyme - as does the Counting Crows' 'A Murder of One'. Marvellous folk music collective 'Two for Joy' and vocals-and-electronic-music act '2forJoy', both based in London, take their name from the rhyme.

Seven for old England, Eight for France

Magpies of the genus Pica are found across almost the whole of Europe, parts of the Middle East, much of the former USSR, East Asia and the western part of North America. The Black-Billed Magpie found in North America is practically indistinguishable from the Eurasian Magpie, but is sometimes considered a separate species; it is more closely related to the Yellow-Billed Magpie, but even this is very much like the European version except for the colour of its beak. The Korean magpie, with a shorter tail, longer wings and a purpler sheen to its feathers, is also the subject of some dispute - either there are four different species of Pica, or else they are all just subspecies of Pica pica.

The name 'magpie' is also applied to a range of other related or similar birds. The other magpies tend to be more brightly coloured than those of the genus Pica, being divided into the Azure-Winged Magpies and various species of blue-green Oriental Magpies. Azure-Winged Magpies are found in Spain and Portugal, and also in much of East Asia. Mysteriously, though, there is a stretch of about 5,000 miles in between where they are not known at all. The Oriental Magpies, found in various parts of Asia, are further divided into two genera: the short-tailed greenish Cissa and the elegant, long-tailed Urocissa, which tend more toward the blueish.

The Australian Magpie is not closely related to the true magpies, which is no surprise if you have ever heard how beautifully they sing, but they do have similar quite markings and intellects. Treepies are pretty closely related to magpies, but they count as a completely separate family - which includes the Black Magpie, despite its name. Other things which are not really magpies include several football clubs; Protoploea apatela, which is a species of nymphalid butterfly known as 'the Magpie'; and the Magpie Moth Abraxas grossulariata, which is in the Geometrid family.

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