I don't even give it a second thought these days. Any time I see a lone magpie, I hold my hand up to my cocked head in salute and say, “Aye Aye Captain!” I've no idea where or when I first heard this but it seems as natural as saying “bless you” when someone sneezes, just one of those things you do. Maybe it's not so dissimilar in origin either, rooted in ancient custom and linked to superstitious beliefs. I don't know quite how greeting a black and white bird like a naval officer is supposed to reduce the chances of shit happening, but still I do it and I'm not alone. Apparently there are many variations of this saying, from that simple salutation to the more long-winded, “Hello Mr Magpie, how are your wife and children?” A quick survey of friends also threw a “Good day Sergeant” into the mix.
The subject of this, and the magpie rhyme ”one for sorrow, two for joy” etc. came up on Radio 2 Drivetime's 'Homework Sucks!' feature some months back. I usually catch the end of it every Tuesday evening when I do a short trip in the car and I like the curious snippets of info you can pick up – unfortunately, though, I always seem to remember more about the questions than the answers. Funny what sticks though - there was one about the weight of a raindrop falling on a small bird, it was something like equivalent to ten tons dropping on a human (I could be making that up) but of course I can't recall exactly nor the real science behind why the bird doesn't get flattened like something out of a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Must try harder. However, I did remember some about the magpie thing. An early version of the rhyme was “one for sorrow, two for mirth, three for a death and four for a birth” and it was used as a form of fortune telling, the sighting of however many magpies being thought of as some kind of prediction. Delve a little bit deeper and it's believed that seeing just one magpie is evidence that its mate (they mate for life apparently) may either have died, or 'be up to no good' somewhere else and is therefore symbolic of sorrow or bad luck. As a way of warding off the misfortune that the lonesome Magpie No-mates could bring on us, the act of greeting him with a respectful salutation became a superstitious tradition.
I don't see many magpies in our garden, but my mother-in-law gets one quite regularly at her bird table. She doesn't bother with all that Aye Aye Captain wife and children twaddle, though; instead she keeps to the rather more prosaic exclamation of “Get off you greedy bugger!” preferring to see the sparrows and bluetits get the scraps. But I don't think the Captain can hear her through the window and presumably thinks the shooing action of her hand is a fanciful salute.