Jeremy Paxman

Jeremy Paxman

…on the arrogance of magpies

After spotting a mischief of magpies, our columnist is reminded of Ken Clarke’s fondness for birdwatching

I saw five magpies together the other day. Five! Doubtless one reader or another will be able to do better. But it is the largest number I have ever seen in one place. I am not a great fan of magpies, having watched a pair of them hop along the top of a hedge, dragging young songbirds out of their nests and dumping them on the ground to die.

But of all garden birds, they are the most self-important and there is something about their stiff-legged arrogance that positively commands your attention far more effectively than, say, the pigeons, crows, jays, doves or even the hordes of parakeets of equivalent size that our gardens must now endure. 

The magpie is a cross between Shakespeare’s Malvolio and Trollope’s Obadiah Slope – and it is not just because of the distinctive prebendal dress. Everyone agrees they are highly intelligent; if you thought your survival depended upon it, you’d be an enemy of songbirds too.

Yet however bright they may be, their presence is still unwelcome. Each spring I used to put out a Larsen trap – a trap with a live bird as decoy – to capitalise upon their absurdly overdeveloped sense of property rights. That is, until my teenage daughter discovered it. I’ve never met a bird-watcher who objected, though, for the magpie is a menace. 


Everyone agrees that magpies are highly intelligent. Yet however bright they may be, their presence is still unwelcome

The former justice secretary Kenneth Clarke was the last politician to appreciate the charm of birds, if not necessarily magpies. There’s a rich history of the politician bird-watcher: the author of the 1927 book The Charm of Birds was his more distinguished cabinet predecessor, Lord Grey of Fallodon. 

Ken once told me he had been lying under a hedge, looking through his binoculars, when, uninvited, his wife Gillian plumped herself down beside him in his impromptu hide. What on earth was he watching? 

“There it is,” exclaimed our hero, in a stage whisper, as Gillian focused her bins on a small brown bird 25 yards away. “It looks rather like a very unusual warbler that’s never been seen on these shores.”

Cabinet ministers have as little chance of changing history as the rest of us and he allowed himself an instant to bask in dreams of the ponderous editorials that would follow Twitcher’s Weekly’s front page splash about the first sighting of Clarke’s Warbler.

Then his wife spoke.

“Oh, that,” she said, “It’s a sparrow. I’ve been watching it for half an hour.” In an instant his dreams of fame were gone. 

There is something disappointing about the sparrow (although the taxonomic challenges of the LBJs – little brown jobs – are well understood in the ornithological community). Sic transit gloria mundi [thus passes the glory of the world], as a writer of stirring verse – someone like Sir Henry Newbolt – might have said, had he happened to be present in the Clarke garden. 

I’ve always had a soft spot for Ken Clarke. Today’s clichés would label him an analogue politician for a digital age. I liked his awful high-street suits and Hush Puppies and he absolutely should have had a bird family named after him.

After all, it doesn’t matter to a magpie or warbler what another species calls them or whether five means silver or gold. Or come to that, a secret that’s never been told. But for that, I’d need to see seven – and if that were to happen I’m afraid I’d be getting out the Larsen trap again.

Just don’t tell any teenagers. 

Jeremy Paxman

Written by Jeremy Paxman