Birds: Magpie (snag breac), pica pica
One of Ireland's most familiar birds, the magpie needs no introduction. A member of the crow family, it is an exceptionally intelligent bird which, coupled with its ability to eat just about anything and adapt to new surroundings, helps to explain its success.
The Magpie is black and white, and about 45cm in length, including its long tail and powerful beak. At close range, its black feathers show a beautiful blue, purple or green iridescent sheen. Due to their intelligence and parrot-like ability to mimic human speech, they were once popular pets. In the wild they usually make harsh "chack" calls, but also have a quiet melodic song that is rarely heard.
It surprises many to learn that magpies were not always found in Ireland: the first record was from Co Wexford around 1676, when about a dozen were spotted flying in over the sea. By the end of the 18th century, the species was common across the island.
Though magpies sometimes eat the eggs and chicks of other birds, they have been unfairly blamed for declines in many of our songbird populations. In fact, all the evidence shows that magpies have no effect on overall songbird numbers and that predation by domestic cats is a far bigger problem. Even more significant, however, is rampant habitat-loss throughout Ireland, leaving many of our birds with ever fewer places to nest, shelter and feed: this is the real culprit behind the declines.
More Village readers can receive a free set of wallcharts covering Ireland's common birds by calling BirdWatch Ireland at 01 2819878 or writing to: Village Garden Bird Chart Offer, BirdWatch Ireland, PO Box 12, Greystones, Co Wicklow