A rhyme about magpies is well known all over the country, although presumably not believed. The divination depends on the number of birds seen; there are naturally numerous variations, although nearly all agree that one magpie is bad, but two are good. The earliest record, c.1780, from Lincolnshire, runs:
   One for sorrow, Two for mirth, Three for a wedding, And four for a death.
   Common variations are 'Four for a birth', and:
   One for sorrow, Two for joy, Three for a girl, And four for a boy.
   There are many variations for the higher numbers. The grimmest, first noted from Northumberland (Denham Tracts, 1895: ii. 202), runs:
   Five for silver, six for gold, Seven for a secret not to be told, Eight for heaven, nine for hell, And ten is for the Devil's own sel'.
   Other possibilities are:
   Five for rich, six for poor,
   Seven for a witch, I can tell you no more.
   Five for rich, six for poor, Seven for a bitch, eight for a whore, Nine for a burying, ten for a dance, Eleven for England, twelve for France.
   Denham says the bad luck of a single bird can be averted by drawing a cross on the ground or by saying:
   Magpie, magpie, chatter and flee, Turn up thy tail and good luck fall me.
   Other ways of averting the evil are to take off one's hat on seeing the bird, bow, wish it 'Good day', or blow a kiss to it; or spit over the left shoulder; or turn round three times; or cross one's fingers and say:
   I cross the magpie,
   The magpie crosses me; Bad luck to the magpie,
   And good luck to me.
   Though the magpie rhyme has not been traced earlier than c.1780, magpie omens go back to medieval times. Sometimes they are favourable, for example that the chattering means that guests or strangers are coming (1159 and onwards); more often not: '. . . whan pyes chatter vpon a house it is a sygne of ryghte euyll tydynges' (1507). This is especially so if the bird is flying around, or perching on, a house where someone is ill. In Sheffield, it was disliked because it refused to enter Noah's ark, preferring to sit on its roof 'and jabber over the drowning world' (N&Q. 4s:7 (1871), 299); in Sussex, because 'it was a bad bird, and knew more than it should do, and was always looking about and prying into other people's affairs' (Latham, 1878: 9).
   ■ Swainson, 1885: 76-81; Opie and Tatem, 1989: 235-6.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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