Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Magpie

The magpie is a curious bird, or rather, a curious collection of birds. There are in fact eleven different species, world wide. In North America, there are two kinds. Pica pica, the black-billed magpie is the most common. It's yellow-billed cousin, Pica nuttalli is found mostly on the West coast. All magpies are members of the crow family and are distinguished by their black and white feathers. A picture of a magpie, along with other interesting information, can be found here.

What makes magpies interesting is that they are birds that excite a lot of interest and about which their are a variety of myths and beliefs. For instance, the Chinese call the magpie 'The Bird of Joy' and associate good fortune with them. This view is rather an unusual one. A more common set of beliefs about magpies can be found in a traditional rhyme about magpies, that is learned by English school children. The rhyme goes,

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.

Magpies are known for having a few odd habits. For instance, magpies are highly attracted to shiny objects. However, this is not the set of habits that have caused magpies to have an unsavoury reputation.

Most people know that crows are mostly scavengers. Magpies too are also scavengers. However, they differ from other members of the crow family, in so much as they will take an active role in bringing about the demise of their prey. For instance, should a crow spot a young rabbit in a bad way, the crow will most likely hang around until the rabbit dies, before proceeding to scavenge from the rabbit. Magpies in contrast, will often peck out the eyes of an animal in distress to hasten their death. Such behaviours are often viewed as being unnecessarily cruel by rural people. This kind of behavior has been responsible in large part for the contempt that magpies are held in.

As the rhyme above suggests, magpies in general, and single magpies in particular, are seen as birds of ill omen. This raises the interesting question of what a person should do, if they see a magpie, in order to ward off the misfortune. Various proposals have been made on this topic. However, when I was growing up, we were always taught to follow a curious little ritual. Just in case, someone has an unfortunate encounter with a magpie, I will describe the ritual here.

Should one see a magpie, then immediately one should greet the magpie with the two phrases,

"Good morning, my lord,
Good afternoon, Mr. Magpie."

After these words have been said, it is next important to salute the magpie. Now, how, or why this little ritual is supposed to help, is radically unclear. However, just in case, it may be wise to follow the ritual anyhow. Indeed, I know people who take things a little further. Should they see two, or three magpies, then they will repeat the ritual once for each bird. This may be excessive.

Some people, and even some bloggers, are a bit like magpies. They are attracted to the shininess of other peoples words, images and the like, and feel the need to collect them up for themselves, by putting them on their blogs. This kind of person (and bloggers of this ilk) are often rather cruel, like magpies. One can also find something similar when people without philosophical training start thinking about philosophical topics. They will pick up a few words and ideas from various places and then try and make intellectual headway. These attempts almost never lead anywhere. Perhaps the worst type of case like this is when a person collects up several concepts from politics, philosophy, psychoanalysis and self-help, mix them with implausible claims about perception and some highly suspect reasoning and then attempt to build justifications for their own shortcomings. This is not only annoying and futile, it also exhibits the same coherency as a magpie's random collection of shiny things. It is a real shame that there is no simple ritual to make this kind of person desist and go away.

The CP


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