The magpie mind

Or, what did this silly bird ever do to us?

Pity the magpie.

This black-and-white bird has been a symbol of one thing or another for humans for as long as we’ve noticed it. It’s a genius, a thief, a trickster, a scavenger, and generally misunderstood. It’s also my chosen mascot for wit — but should it be? And if not, who should be drafted as a replacement? Perhaps Youppi?

In European folklore, magpies are both curses and collectors. The Swedes associate them with witchcraft, while in Scotland a sighting from a window means death is near. The English doff their bowler hats and say “Good morning, Mr. Magpie” whilst reciting rhymes that connect various predictions to the number of visible magpies: One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, and on and on until they blot out the sun. In Korea, happily, the magpie is an unambiguously good omen as well as a tooth fairy

Their supposed proclivity to grab shiny objects provides the twist in Rossini’s opera The Thieving Magpie, the title of which is a total spoiler alert. In the western U.S., magpies are among the birds called camp robbers for their picnic thievery. Recent research suggests their love of the glittery is overblown, though it’s generally agreed that they’re extremely inquisitive animals and they will hide interesting items for later retrieval.

Who has a magpie mind? A random peck through the archives of the London Review of Books finds that Michael Ondaatje is a “magpie storyteller, and can’t resist the glitter of backstory” and that Julian Barnes deserves praise for the “magpie pleasures of his bon mots and one liners.” (Cited in that review: “Stuart on a double date is definitely cognate with a breadstick still in its wrapper.”)

Occasionally, the magpie mind is unambiguously good, as in Liza Munday’s book Code Girls, describing the teams of young women who worked to crack Nazi ciphers in the Second World War: 

Codes are broken not by solitary individuals but by groups of people trading pieces of things they have learned and noticed and collected, little glittering bits of numbers and other useful items they have stored up in their heads like magpies, things they remember while looking over one another’s shoulders, pointing out patterns that turn out to be the key that unlocks the code.

But more often, there’s a hint of resentment toward the magpie, specifically from the original owner of the stolen shiny object. Great artists steal, said W.H. Davenport, and to prove his point the line has since been attributed to Pablo Picasso, T.S. Eliot, and Steve Jobs. The robbed party doesn’t necessarily have to appreciate the result, of course. 

Bob Dylan’s “magpie genius” led him to steal only the best records from a friend’s collection. (“He had an unerring sense of what to take,” said friend “glances with dry wit.”) And while some of Duke Ellington’s collaborators noted his “magpie-like borrowings,” others were more blunt: “Oh, he’d steal like mad, no questions about it. He’d steal that from his own self.”

As of late, magpie mind has been used by software engineers to describe our era of perpetual distraction. The “magpie developer” is “too easily distracted by shiny new toys and playthings,” and the engineers behind aimed to solve that problem with an app “where shiny things get organized and tasks get done” — though it seems like they’ve since turned their attention elsewhere.

This modern use of the metaphor misses the point: Magpies use interesting objects to build their nests. Are all those open tabs building toward something greater? If not, leave the bird alone.

What else does science tell us about the magpies? They are highly intelligent. They are very social. They love to play. And they recognize themselves in the mirror. Which is maybe why, when we look at them, we see ourselves.

Quick quips; lightning

“If there’s one thing above all a vulture can’t stand, it’s a glass eye.”
— Kin Hubbard

“Puccini was Latin, and Wagner Teutonic,
And birds are incurably philharmonic.”

— Ogden Nash

“Beach’s bullfinch continued to chirp reflectively to itself, like a man trying to remember a tune in his bath.”
— P.G. Wodehouse


  • “Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God” are unacceptable ways to solve a mystery, as per Dorothy L. Sayers, GWQ No. 66.

  • “One’s need for loneliness is not satisfied if one sits at a table alone,” Karl Kraus (GWQ No. 51) said. “There must be empty chairs as well.”

  • “I must ask anyone entering the house never to contradict me in any way, as it interferes with the functioning of the gastric juices and prevents my sleeping at night.” As per the sign on Edith Sitwell’s father’s home, GWQ No. 21

That was Issue 90 of Get Wit Quick, your weekly guide to great indoors. If great artists steal, we should dispatch all units to the art gallery ASAP. Everything I know about ornithology I learned from Birds of Britain, which explains why these “mysterious beautiful creatures that came to our planet suddenly in 1962 are still an enigma today.” I wrote about Churchill’s magpie mind in my book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting; please tap the ♥️ below.