Noisy nesters – Éanna Brophy on the ingenuity of magpies

These days you’ll see them flying about with branches of small trees in their beaks

Ireland’s suburbia and further afield have been filled these past few weeks with the sight and sound of frenetic building – not of houses or apartments in this case – but of birds’ nests, specifically magpie nests. Other birds go about their domestic arrangements discreetly, and indeed many by now may be raising a newly-fledged family, but the magpies do things in a more showy manner. The most eye-catching thing at this time of year is that half of them are flying about with branches of small trees in their beaks.

They are bringing these to the chosen sites for their new nests, which are also outstanding in sheer size and ingenuity. The magpie is the only Irish bird to build a nest that has a roof. It is put together largely by the female: she is the architect of the duo while the male is a mere hod-carrier. But what a carrier: thin boughs and not-so-slender branches over a metre long are no problem. These are brought to the nest site where the female weaves them, with moss and mud, into a cosy fortress.

They can be ingenious in transporting the building material. In a discussion in one neighbourhood recently, a keen magpie observer reported watching one with a metre-long “twig” in its beak, trying to gain enough altitude to reach the nest site on a tall roadside tree. The angle of take-off was too steep but the bird worked out that it could be done by taking off at a lower angle from ground level, then landing on a low roof nearby, and from there making the second low-angled flight to the treetop. Clearly, this bird must not only have studied Pythagoras or Euclid at Magpie College, but it had probably retained an understanding of Sine and Cosine, which is more than can be said about most humans.

Another contributor told of how he had allowed a nesting pair to build their home in the metal framework supporting his TV dish. But, he said, his television picture was now only available in black-and-white.


The first magpies are thought to have arrived in south Wexford around 1676, when a small flock flew over from Wales. Today they are common everywhere in Ireland. But the proliferation of their avian homesteads can and does cause tension between man and magpie. We sometimes see headlines about people complaining about a rapid increase in magpie numbers. But the birds might be justified in looking at it another way. Humans have increasingly been building their houses and roads in areas where the magpie, as well as other wildlife, once held sway. The arch-opportunist, black-and-white brigands have no compunction in building their nests close to these houses – in gardens and roadside trees and high hedges, and even in the electric cabling attached to lamp-posts. Householders sometimes discourage them by demolishing half-built nests. The birds depart but will come back and take the hard-won nesting material to their new building site. Waste not, want not: they are sound on ecological theory.

Magpies eat only when they’re hungry – unlike your average domestic cat, which accounts for much greater slaughter of birds

Apart from the superstitions that have followed them for centuries, magpies generally get a bad press. Even the esteemed Michael Viney (of this parish) confessed in one of his long-running Saturday columns that he annually discouraged the “piratical” noisy magpies from nesting too close to the house. He preferred them at a distance. Viney also pondered how people might admire the hunting skill of a sparrowhawk swooping to catch a small bird, but be aghast at the sight of marauding magpies helping themselves to the eggs or even the offspring of neighbouring songbirds.

The anti-magpie cohort contend that as magpies increase in any area, the songbird numbers decline, but research in Britain commissioned by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds found that songbird numbers were no different in places where there were many magpies from where there are few. It found no evidence that more magpies mean fewer songbirds: availability of food and suitable nesting sites are probably the main factors limiting songbird populations, citing intensive farming and the loss of hedgerows as a major culprit.

Magpies eat only when they’re hungry – unlike your average domestic cat, which accounts for much greater slaughter of birds. Even though it has more than likely put away a substantial breakfast before leaving the house, our furry friend will spend hours skulking under a shrub or behind a shed, waiting to pounce on a hapless baby thrush or blue tit – not out of necessity, just for the craic. Last year in Britain cats killed about 50 million birds, one study found. Irish cat numbers are of course much fewer, but their kill rate is probably pro rata.

Undoubtedly, it is the sheer visibility of the magpies that earns them the unpopularity that increases when their numbers grow in an area. Why are there so many? The explanation is that not all magpies find a mate in their first year after leaving the nest. This leaves a lot of singletons hanging around in gangs – just like so many teenagers. The noisy racket they kick up can be distracting – the magpies that is, not the teenagers.