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( Originally Published 1894 )
The Magpie is an ancient bird and is menetioned by Plutarch and other early writers. It is indigenous in England and shows great industry and ingenuity in the construction of its nest, which it lines with mud plaster and covers with thorns, building upon high trees and in secluded spots. It feeds upon both animal and vegetable food, attacking birds, young ducks and chickens, as well as mice and even rats, and regaling itself on both fruit and grain. It attains to a length of about eighteen inches and is a handsome bird, though captivity does not improve its appearance.
The mischievous habits of the magpie have won for it the name of "the Monkey of the Birds," the Raven as Mr. Wood puts it being "the ornithological baboon." Its mischief is displayed in many ways; in the wanton destruction of articles and in their crafty secretion, as well as in the thievish appropriation of edible dainties. Mr. Wood tells of a Wiltshire magpie which "found a malicious enjoyment in pecking the unprotected ankles of little boys not yet arrived at manly habiliments, and was such a terror to the female servants that they were forced to pass his lurking-place armed with a broom. One of the servants having neglected this precaution, was actually found sitting down on the stones to protect her ankles, the magpie triumphantly pacing round her, until aid was brought, and the bird driven away." Mrs. Bowdich quotes the following from Mr. Ranson : " A magpie, kept by a branch of our family, was noted for his powers of imitation. He could whistle tunes, imitate hens and ducks, and speak very plainly. Seated upon a toll-bar gate, he would shout 'Gate, ahoy!' so distinctly, as to draw out the keeper, who was generally saluted by a loud laugh when he answered the call. When the keeper's wife was making pastry, he would practise the same manoeuvre, and if the trick were not detected, and the woman rushed out to open the gate, the magpie darted into the house, and speedily made his exit with his bill full of paste; and he, in great glee, would chatter about it for some time afterwards. He would perch upon the backs of chairs, say he was hungry, or inform the juniors of the family it was time to go to school. He was allowed to run about, but was never out of mischief, and had a constant propensity to pilfer and hide small articles." Of the serious consequences sometimes attending this habit of secreting things, the following story from Lady Morgan's "Italy" is a painful illustration.-" A noble lady of Florence, resided in a house which stands still opposite the lofty Doric column which was raised to commemorate the defeat of Pietro Strozzi, and the taking of Sienna, by the tyrannic conqueror of both. Cosmo, the First, lost a valuable pearl necklace, and one of her waiting-women, (a very young girl) was accused of the theft. Having solemnly denied the fact, she was put to the torture, which was then a plaisir at Florence. Unable to support its terrible infliction, she acknowledged that `she was guilty,' and, without further trial, was hung. Shortly after, Florence was visited by a tremendous storm; a thunder-bolt fell on the figure of justice, and split the scales, one of which fell to the earth, and with it fell the ruins of a magpie's nest, containing the pearl necklace. Those scales are still the haunts of birds, and I never saw them hovering round them, without thinking of those `good old times,' when innocent women could be first tortured, and then hung on suspicion."