Though their black-and-white plumage suggests formal attire, magpies are actually the thuggish gate-crashers of the bird world, loitering in the alley, picking butts out of the ashcan, rifling through the party rubbish for tidbits and trying to hit on underage chicks. Or eat them, actually: the magpie's penchant for plundering nests and devouring baby birds is the barbaric behavior most often pointed up by people who plumb don't like them.
It doesn't improve their image that when something dies in the great outdoors, magpies are among the first on the scene. Easily startled, they are quick to return to their roadkill feasts, always play-acting like they just happened to be hopping past and—who me?—couldn't possibly have been plucking the eyes out of that dead skunk just seconds earlier. That seems to be the problem for most people: It's nasty enough eating carrion and baby birds without going around looking like such a sneak about it.
Thus, perhaps, the folk-logic leap from magpies as eaters of death to harbingers of it. The bird's reputation as a bearer of ill tidings goes back to at least the Middle Ages in Europe: When pyes chatter upon a house, as the fella said in 1507, it is a sygne of ryghte evyll tydynges. The old English divination "One for sorrow, two for joy ..." was originally about magpies, not blackbirds. Generally speaking, seeing odd numbers of magpies is supposed to be unlucky.
The word magpie grafts an older name for the bird, pie or pye, from Latin, to an archaic nickname for Margaret that insinuates a certain feminine tendency toward idle chatter. The Latin word itself, preserved twice over in the scientific name Pica pica, is simply a feminized form of the term for woodpecker. Loaded with connotations of ravenous and indiscriminating appetite, pica is also the name for a medical condition characterized by a hunger for mostly non-nutritive substances like clay and chalk.
Living among the birds as I do (in spring, the Moon-Randolph Homestead is practically a magpie timeshare), I'll allow that most unsavory magpie stereotypes are grounded in fact: The birds are tip-top egg thieves and committed scavengers who will go to great lengths to procure things they've come to like. Some things, like all my clothespins, they steal for no apparent reason.
Then again, they're part of nature's clean-up crew: somebody's got to do it. They also mate for life, which is always kind of endearing. Maybe that's what I like so much: their natures seem so much more mixed up in them than in other birds. They're like killers and cradle-robbers who are also devoted family types—the Tony Sopranos of the bird world. It's helpful that we've got choices to describe a flock of them. Call it a charm of magpies. Or a murder.