Superstitions of Magpies: One for Sorrow or One for Joy?

When Britons think of superstitions, no doubt one of the first that will come to mind is that magpies are bad luck. But are they really that bad? For this month’s in-house blog article, we are going to look at the reputation of this bird in the British Isles, and hopefully try to see them in a different light.

Photo of a magpie standing in a patch of grass and wildflowers. Due to the angle of the photo, the magpie looks as if it is staring directly at the camera with an inquisitive and curious stare.
Photo of a magpie by Zdeněk Macháček on Unsplash

Magpies are distinctive birds with black, white and blueish-green feathers and a long tail. Their binomial name is Pica-Pica and they are members of the Corvidae family, which includes crows, ravens, jackdaws and choughs, to name a few. According to the IUCN red list of threatened species, magpie habitats can stretch from the westernmost point of Europe in Portugal all the way to Japan, through grasslands, forests and even suburban areas found in many of the countries of the Eurasian continents – which means they are currently rated of Least Concern in terms of preservation.

But that does not mean we should not respect these interesting creatures, as they have been considered to be one of the most intelligent birds on the planet, capable of self-awareness, building tools, and even recognising themselves in mirrors. So why are they considered to be so unlucky?

One theory is that the belief began through biblical myths that claimed the magpie was the only bird not to sing and weep upon the sight of Jesus on the cross, as well as being refused entry to Noah’s Ark, all while cackling and chittering their somewhat hilarious chat-chat-chat at the other animals. The belief must have persisted in Christian countries such as my native Portugal, where the sight of a magpie at your front door is considered a presage of death; as well as Italy, where this painting by Piero della Francesca is from, depicting an unfazed magpie perched atop of a nativity scene.

The Nativity (1470-1475) by Piero della Francesca via Wikimedia.

Meanwhile in England, the belief that the magpie was a bird of ill-omen was recorded as early as 1777 in a publication called Observations on Popular Antiquities by John Brand, where the bird’s chatter was described as a harbinger of “Misfortune” and “Calamity” alongside the cry of ravens and crickets. To nullify the bad luck of encountering or hearing a magpie, the superstitious have been known to spit, make the sign of the cross, as well as bow to the bird, preferably by raising your hat and speaking politely to it. Here are some of the variations of such a greeting that you may have encountered:

  • “Good afternoon, Mr Magpie, how’s your family?”
  • “Good afternoon, Mr Magpie, how’s your ladywife today?”
  • “Hello Jack, how’s your brother?”

However, these salutations usually only apply to the encounter with one lone magpie, because seeing more of them does not necessarily bring misfortune and calamity, as observed in the various magpie songs recorded around these isles. For instance, one of the earliest versions of the familiar One for Sorrow rhyme recorded in 1780 in Lincolshire, said that:

One (magpie) for sorrow
Two for mirth
Three for a wedding
And four for death

In this rendering, we can see that good and bad luck are determined by the number of magpies observed, as mirth means amusement, and weddings are broadly a nice thing (depending on who you’re asking)! Moreover, other regional variations abound (some of which may be found in the Roud Folk Song Index, item RN20096), where there are varied degrees of good and bad incidents. For example:

One for sorrow
Two for joy
Three for a girl
And four for a boy
Five for silver
Six for gold
Seven for a secret never to be told

(South London, as recorded by Roud)

One for sorrow
Two for mirth
Three for a wedding
Four for a birth
Five for Heaven
Six for Hell
The seventh takes your soul to the Devil to sell


And finally:

Ane’s joy
Twa’s grief
Three’s a marriage
Four’s death

(Northeast Scotland)

Thus, while seeing one lone magpie seems to remain associated with sorrow in the first couple of versions above, two to five or even six magpies denote good events instead. Alternatively, in the aforementioned version from Scotland, one single magpie actually means joy, not sorrow! On top of this, as noted in 1787 by Francis Grose, there used to be another version where “It is unlucky to see, first one magpie, and then more; but to see two denotes marriage or merriment; three for a successful journey; four for an unexpected piece of good news; five you will shortly be in great company”.

Adding to this conundrum, according to Steve Roud, creator of the Roud Folk Song Index, “the oldest of the magpie superstitions, by some considerable margin” is that they used to predict the visit of strangers, potentially due to the bird’s call sounding like chatter and gossip, with the earliest known reference dated from 1159 in John of Salisbury’s Policraticus. Could it be then, that since the arrival of unwanted guests can be seen as bad news or just as a general nuisance (as we’ve seen in our first article), the poor magpie began to symbolise bad luck by association?

Lastly, another interesting aspect of these rhymes is that they usually stop counting at sevens – which, in a general sense, is considered to be a lucky number – but last June, I was sent an additional six numbers via Superstition Saturday sessions, all the way up to thirteen:

Eight for a wish
Nine for a kiss
Ten a surprise you should be careful not to miss
Eleven for health
Twelve for wealth
Thirteen beware it’s the Devil himself


Despite the presence of the unlucky thirteen, the sense that magpies portend the ocurrence of happy and/or perfectly fine events continues to be more likely here, for instance with incoming health and wealth. In fact, it is not until the very last verse – the thirteenth – that we are confronted with something truly awful: the Devil, who insists on making an appearence in some of the stanzas above, and whose blood is said to be contained within the magpie’s tongue and make it capable of human speech if cut.

It’s almost as if one lonely magpie is something to feel sorry for, while craving too many things is what attracts the likes of the greedy Devil going after your soul!

But what do you think? Do you see magpies as good, bad, something in between or nothing at all? Let us know in the comment section, or by tagging us on Twitter with our handle or hashtag #SuperstitionSat!

Scientific illustration of a magpie by Wilhelm von Wright. Public domain via Wikimedia.

Before you go…

Did you know that this theory that magpies are actually good was one of the reasons why The Folklore Library and Archive (of which Superstition Saturday is a member of via The Folklore Network) chose the magpie as its mascot?

Art by Rhi Wynter

Speaking of The Folklore Library and Archive, don’t miss their upcoming Witchcraft Conference on the 19th and 20th of March! Guests include Professor Ronald Hutton, Professor Marion Gibson, The Doreen Valiente Foundation, and more. Tickets available here!

Thank you for reading!
– Superstition Sam 🐾

Further reading:
The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland, by Steve Roud (2003)