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Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Eleven Plus and the Magpie

The birds have been enjoying our garden as winter slips into spring. There is a wonderful bird food product which the birds enjoy – and the seeds do not leave any unwelcome growth. If only life was really that simple.

At one stage, just as the eggs were boiling for breakfast this morning, there were twenty three birds actually on the ground. There must have been far more in the garden as the trees around were alive with movement and sound. We then saw, for the first time ever in our garden, a magpie.

It was only when I looked the bird up in The New Birdwatcher’s Pocket Guide to the Britain and Europe (ISBN 978-0-7537-1454-6) that I saw that I should have noticed the tail. The plumage, however, was decidedly black and white.

We all have views on the Magpie – they are well known as scavengers and predators. Considerable folk lore has built up about the birds. There are many variations on the rhyme – but this old Scottish rhyme does paint a scary picture:

“One’s sorrow, two’s mirth,
Three’s a wedding, four’s a birth,
Five’s a christening, six a death,
Seven’s heaven and eight is hell,
And nine’s the devil his ane sel.”

The actual name Magpie may have developed from a contraction of maggot-pie or magata-pie. I am not sure what the reference to maggot-pie refers to. Is the bird alive or is it to do with the bird eating carrion?

I did Macbeth at school – and words still ring in the mind. We were made to learn great chunks of the story by heart both at primary school in Year 6 and when the English examinations came later on.

Act III Scene vi.
It will have blood, they say: blood will have blood.
Stones have been known to move and trees to speak;
Augurs and understood relations have
By maggot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forth
The secret'st man of blood. What is the night?

There are some eleven plus children who would revel in the thought of all that blood dripping steadily – but maggots in pies? That would be going a bit too far for most of us.

We are remarkably fortunate that we work with some extraordinarily bright nine, ten and eleven year old children. It would be fascinating to hear some of them give opinions as to why one magpie could summon sorrow to the watcher. It would also be interesting to introduce the story behind Macbeth’s preoccupation with blood – then ask for an analysis of the few lines from Act 111 mentioned above. For some very bright children a discussion of this nature may be far more invigorating than finding seventy percent of sixty. (And seventy percent of thirty, and seventy percent of fifty, and seventy percent of eighty and seventy percent of more and more.)

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