One of the most common British birds is also the most hated; The Magpie Pica pica is surrounded by superstition, beliefs and is often persecuted due to its unique behavior, which through my recent project was interpreted through the means of photography to capture its unrecognized attributes. Through research and experimentation, I have reflected on the true behavior and eliminated false accusations to educate the public with knowledge of the species translated into accurate photographic stills through research and the observation of regular behavior, captured in their natural habitat with introduced props.
Magpies are now one of the most common birds in the UK according to the RSPB after their numbers have increased by 112% over the last 30 years but they are unpopular due to there challenging and arrogant behavior leading to around one hundred and fifty thousand killed this century alone. The “chattering” call of the magpie has been protested about as far back as Shakespeare’s time, when superstitions circulated locally. In the 1880s, it was believed they were the only bird not to go on the ark with Noah, preferring to sit outside ‘jabbering over the drowning world’ and to this day many people still have a ritual to negate the perceived bad influence of the magpie, they’re the only bird in British folklore to elicit such a response.
Many cultures believe that the gaze from a magpie or eye contact is a bad omen but in fact superstitions have been misinterpreted as it is stated that bad luck is removed if eye contact is made as it is showing your respect. Unlike many birds the Magpie and many other Corvids lack the bright plumage commonly used to signify danger with the flap of feathers so instead they use a variety of alarm calls or show the white of their eyes by pulling over their third eyelid. One magpie is commonly seen as a bad omen with many cultures especially in Britain there are over twenty different interpretations of the magpie rhyme in which one part remains the same; one magpie is sorrowful but for a variety of reasons. Some say that if a magpie is seen alone it’s companion is deceased as they are never too far apart but they could be in hiding or nesting as magpies do in fact mate for life but if their partner dies they will breed with another. This project started off trying to capture subtle images, which combined with research represented superstition stores’, and this image ‘Magpie vision’ was always in mind. I was not sure how I would execute it to make it interesting but shooting face on created a sense of depth whilst the slight movement gives it eerie. As this was shot fairly close up you cannot see any of the pied plumage, which can make it difficult to grasp it is a magpie but alongside other images it will seem obvious.
Magpies like their corvid cousins, are often classified with witches, but their mythology is different, consistently associated with feminine power, romantic magic, and oracular prophecy, with only practically associated with witches. They are one of the only creatures witches were commonly thought to shape shift into during the Middle Ages just like crows, ravens and black cats whilst the mythology of magpies goes further back then Christianity. When Jesus Christ was crucified. It is believed that the magpie represented the devil as it did not mourn his death, both magpie and dove perched on the cross whilst the dove caught Christ’s tears the magpie was indifferent.
It seems that because birds can easily move between earth and sky, humans have long viewed birds as a link between the temporal and spiritual worlds and a large number of superstitions center on birds as harbingers of death. A bird flying into a home through the door or a window, and possibly even lading on the back of a chair, is considered an omen of death for someone in the household whilst a bird perching on a windowsill looking in, or tapping its beak against the glass, is an ominous sign. Rising above the earth and soaring through the skies, birds have been symbols of power and freedom throughout the ages, assume a variety of roles in mythology and religion whilst playing a central part in some creation myths and frequently appear as messengers of the deities. Whilst this superstition is frequent through a variety of plays, poems and old stories it seemed a key myth to capture in my series, through a variety of ideas and attempts this shot was one of the most difficult to capture with a variety of sets being made and baiting it was not successful but by using a captive magpie it perched on its branch in front of an old window with ease, whilst I would of preferred to avoid the branch it makes for a natural effect and the murky tones of the wall make for an old fashioned and antique feel. This particular magpie was captive due to a variety of issues such as blindness, and an overgrown wonky beak, whilst I managed to capture the less obvious damaged eye the beak could not be avoided.
One main image we all hold in our minds when it comes to Magpies is their fascination with shiny objects and this is actually Corvids in general, many relate this ideal as something symbolic to us such as our tendency to chase after false ideas or perceptions. When the magpie comes into our lives it is often a reminder that we may have to re-evaluate our priorities, but is this due to a ‘greater’ meaning behind the bird or its astounding beauty? Magpies mate for life with a typical magpie clutch holding approximately six eggs hatching in twenty-four days; hatchlings will leave the nest after twenty-seven days prior to hatching. Nesting in thorny bushes or high up in tall trees they build in a domed fashion which takes longer to construct than many modern houses, often in ‘V’ shaped branches, exciting superstition once more as a ‘V’ In nature is symbolic of a gateway or path to the spirit realm. Magpies are protected under wildlife and countryside act 1981 making it illegal to intentionally recklessly kill or injure or to take damage or destroy and active nest whilst in some cases it is legalized or ignored. Nesting in such difficult spots it was never going to be able to photograph on my time scale whilst I did not want to disturb either the nest or the parents so I constructed my own nest. Domed in shape with an entrance and exit I placed in my speckled blue egg replicas and wound in some beads to create the typical ideal of a magpie, and make it more obvious as many would not know a magpie nest if they saw one and contrary to my faith I am really happy with the outcomes. I shot a variety of images I am pleased with, whilst my final image had to show the structure of the nest and all the additional qualities I added, leaving me with my image ‘Magpie nest’ which I captured through one entrance peering through to the inside and out the other; showing the typical nest structure.
Breeding magpies typically hold a territory of five hectares all year round but as nest sites are limited over twenty five percent of magpies do not breed. Fledging is a dangerous time as there is a high percentage of fledglings failing to survive the first year, even when food supply is poor the older, stronger nestlings will get all the food, ensuring survival. In Chinese the name magpie translates as ‘happiness magpie’ and it is believed that it’s song will bring happiness, joy, marital bliss, sexual happiness, long lasting fortune, good luck and in some parts it is considered a sacred bird whereas when it’s cry heard it is said to be an announcement of the arrival of friends and family. It seemed obvious to capture the fledglings, which like the nest idea would have been difficult if not impossible so using captive birds allowed close contact. The frequent calling for food gave the opportunity to experiment with various lighting and compositions which was ideal as the scene was unattractive and dark, by lighting from behind I could silhouette my subject and light just slightly the beak adding some depth and an overall artistic image. I would of preferred to capture the nestling to be facing into the frame but it was not working with the composition and lighting, though it still works.
There are many myths that have depicted the hatred on these beautiful birds including the assumption that they gather in numbers to bully weaker creatures but in fact the hour before darkness falls magpies gather in groups to roost; often made up of twenty or more individuals with the small ‘gangs’ that have been seen taunting cats, foxes or stoats are often in self-defense, trying to drive a predator away with no known cases of magpies using mob-handed bullying tactics. Urban magpies have earned enemies with their neighbours by disturbing them with their rattling fusillades, the best that can be said of their clacking is that it is ‘percussive’ but in spring to see the scarlet tongue lifting in a male’s part-opened bill and you might hear it sing a soft lullaby meant for its special other. With that in mind they are named the culprit of the songbird decline, in spring or harsh times magpies like many other species do not hesitate to take the eggs and chicks of other birds to sustain its own brood but typically they survive on a largely vegetarian diet. Although guilty of this act the British Trust for Ornithology research (2010) combined data from over two hundred sites between 1967–2000 exhibiting no causal link between an increase in magpie numbers and the decline in songbird statistics. Corvids and magpies in particular are ridiculed and poached for their scavenging behavior so it was essential to capture it in my series but this was unsuccessful so I swapped it for capturing their weapon of choice; their talons. Captured in a way that shows off the details it is not scientifically correct but artistic with the tail feather background spreading out and downward. The frequent blue grey tones are dark and dramatic which contrast with the sharp claws on the leather looking feet.
In a variety of countries, religions and story’s magpies are key characters for many notable features one being their elongated and colorful tail feathers. In Finland there is a famous folk tale “Why the Magpie has a Long Tail” which regards a too-talkative magpie that informed a man he would die within the day, making God so angry that he grabbed the bird by its stubby tail and pulled its tail feathers into their present long slender form, mentioned in some of the creation stories as it allowed its tail to be spread across a river, creating a bridge for people to enter into the world and combining the magpie again to life and death. The magpie is known in Native American folk law for its bold nature and minimal fear so in many tribes wearing a magpie feather is a sign of fearlessness, a positive and interesting concept that differs from many other opinions, a belief that correlates with the natural history of the bird. The tail of a magpie makes up half the entire body length whilst the males are longer; they are unique to this bird and a natural beauty, which I intended to capture. With another image idea using in camera double exposure I started to experiment using the feathers in this way leading to me capturing the feathers and the sky, mixing the ideals of them being a deliverer of life and death and their relationship with the sky. The dark tones of the feathers representing the darkness of death and then the lightness of life whilst including the clouds to add more depth and keeping the diverse blues of the feathers. I am really happy how this image came out, with the depth to the story and detail in both the feathers and clouds. By framing the feathers in the corner I could create a realistic effect seeming as if a magpie had flown through when in fact I had to resort to using taxidermy magpie tail feathers, as I could not get the desired effect any other way.
Magpies are frequent throughout creation stories especially Christian stories, however the great flood is not one of them. Noah sent a Raven from the arc to find land and come back but as many other Corvids it has a scavenging behavior and did not return as it was feeding off bodies in the water so Noah proceeded to send a dove which after a few tries brought back an olive branch; but many say this dove bred with the raven creating the magpie and its contrasting plumage. I think that is a beautiful creation story of the magpie itself and wanted to portray it in my work by shooting both subjects with the same colored background to blend them in but I had issues with photographing a dove so had to work with just feathers whereas the raven was easier as I used a captive subject.
They are often associated with the journey of the human soul after death but some have appeared as tricksters and oracles such as Ravens, Magpies and other species that feed on carrion, the flesh of the dead, may be symbols of war, death, and misfortune, as well as mediators between humans and the supernatural world, a contrast to other birds which represent strength, love, and wisdom. The Magpie is often regarded as a bird of ill omen, whilst it is unlucky to see it is especially unlucky to see only one with many counter actions to break the charm with many common sayings and rhymes to remember. There are many different versions of the magpie rhyme with some counting as high as 20 birds. It is common throughout the UK to salute a single magpie and say “Good morning Mr Magpie. How is your lady wife today?” By showing him respect there is the hope that he will not pass bad fortune on to you. By referring to the magpie’s wife you are also implying that there are two magpies, which bring joy rather than sorrow. Many myths, opinions and superstitions differ when it comes to magpies but the singular magpie myth is frequent, it is only lucky for one to be seen sitting on a roof top as it is there to protect the house whereas a large group is also a bad sign as they may be plotting to carry out the devils work. Seeing an individual magpie can also suggest bad weather is coming in which I photographed a portrait of a single magpie in the rain. It was key to capture a portrait within this series but one magpie was essential as it is a major part of the mythology of these birds.
Overall I really enjoyed this project but faced a variety of complications but as for my next assignment I intend to follow this example in more depth studying corvids overall.