Photographs: Tony Öhberg/Finland Today
A few days after arriving in Finland I left Helsinki and headed toward a smaller town. There was so much to marvel at in the capital city that I didn’t really focus on the wildlife. Summer was coming to an end and I was more interested in absorbing the summery vibe of the city, the architecture, the cafes and the people.
Once settled in the eastern town of Joensuu I took myself on a walk which I’ll remember forever. I wasn’t listening to music or walking to a specific place, I was just taking in my new surroundings. As I looked up toward the roof of a house, I spotted a rather peculiar bird with a white chest and a strike of blue on the wings. It was bigger than the birds I used to see in Mexico City, and I thought it appropriate that their blue patch matched the blue of the Finnish flag.
I am not a bird expert and bird classification in my mind is made up of two categories: kind of small birds and kind of big birds. And so it was that the kind of big, crow-like, white and blue birds seemed to accompany me everywhere. It took months before I realized that those birds were “magpies,” a word that I had never needed to use before. After Googling, I learned that magpies are one of the smartest birds. I read about the mirror test (magpies can self-recognize in a mirror!) and about their interest in shiny objects.
As the months passed and winter darkness permeated the eastern town, the magpies continued to be there. I would see them on top of a bus stop sign or going about their business looking for insects. For me, they were a sort of silent companion, a type of bird that I will always associate with the ever-changing seasons of Finland.
A few years later, when I arrived in the UK, I saw them again. “Finnish birds!” I said excitedly.
“Those aren’t Finnish birds. They are magpies and they bring bad luck.” So I was told.
I couldn’t believe it. After more research, I found out that my winged companions are indeed considered to be the bearer of bad luck. Even in Finland, magpies can be thought to foreshadow misfortune and were called the “devil’s bird” in the past.
According to a popular English nursing rhyme, it is the number of magpies that determines your luck. It goes like this:
One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret never to be told.
I never got to see seven magpies together, but I would love to keep their secret.
During all my time in Finland, my ignorance in local ornithology led me to trust those birds and to create a mythology of my own. For me, magpies didn’t carry bad luck, but were more like faithful creatures that overlooked my every move while I was trying to figure out life in a foreign country.
They were there when I fell off my bike, when I got lost on my way to town and while I waited for the bus. Now, as I find myself trying to figure out life in yet another country, magpies keep me company just as they did in the small Finnish town.