Salt on a Magpie's Tail

A Swedish folktale adapted from a fairytale by Anna Walenburg
as told by Eldrbarry

Once there was a boy who was always wishing for things. A bike, a sled, a house with a yard, even a cheap clasp knife. His father had died, and the farm had been foreclosed on by the bank. His mother was a poor woman, living in a run-down rooming house, making brooms for a living at minimum wage. So none of his wishes ever came true.

One day as he was busy wishing out loud for this and that - nothing extravagant, mind you, just the sort of things most boys want - an old man resting on a bench gave him some good advice. He told him to go to the woods and sprinkle some salt on the tail of a magpie, and then he would get whatever he wished for. But he would have to wish quickly, while the salt was still on the bird's tale, else it would be no use.

So the boy began spending a lot of time in the woods, with a handful of salt in his pocket, looking for magpies. Now magpies are smart birds, not above mischief or theft. It is not easy to sprinkle salt on their tails.

Though he saw many magpies, he never got very close to any of them. The magpies kept a wary eye out for him, but one day mischief overcame fear and one magpie started teasing him, letting him get closer and closer before flying off laughing. After a long day chasing the magpie the boy finally just sat down to rest. He could hear the magpie in the bushes, but had given up on catching him.

Then he heard the magpie calling his name: "Olle! Olle!". The boy looked up and there it was looking at him. "You talk?" Exclaimed the boy. "Yes", answered the magpie "I am an enchanted prince, and I will grant your wish if you help me. Get me a really fine knife to clean my beak and claws and I will sit still so you can sprinkle salt on my tail."

The boy thought this was a good deal, so he started picking berries and taking them into town, he finally sold enough to go to the Five and Ten and buy a cheap pocket knife. Then he filled his pocket with salt and went back to the woods to find the magpie.

The magpie came hopping right up, looking over the knife with one eye and then the other. "That won't do." The magpie said. "For a prince like me it ought to be a stainless steel switchblade with a golden handle." And the magpie flew off.

Olle was so sad. "I will get you one,." he called after the magpie. "Don't bother!" The magpie called back, "What I want now is a really fine bike."

So Olle set to work with his pocket knife whittling. He whittled wooden spoons and breadboards and some wooden toys, and sold them in town. He saved up enough pennies and nickels and dimes and bought a nice used mountain bike. He filled his pocket with salt and rode the bike to the woods. The magpie flew down and strutted around it looking it over. "That's a nice bike - but what I wanted was a Harley!" And off he flew.

Olle was so sad. "I will get you one," he called after the magpie. "Don't bother!" The magpie called back, "What I want now is a really fine sled."

Well Olle continued his whittling and he started using the bike to make deliveries for local merchants. He saved his nickels and dimes and quarters and finally bought the nicest sled True Value had on hand, even though it was last year's model. That snowy afternoon he filled his pocket with salt, tied the sled to his bike and pulled it out to the woods. The magpie and a few of his buddies flew down from the roost and strutted around it. It said "American Flyer" in faded red letters and had only a little rust on its runners. "That's a sled?" said the magpie - "I wanted a Snowcat!" and the magpies flew off.

Olle was so sad. "I will get you one," he called after the magpie. "Don't bother!" The magpie called back, "What I want now is a really fine set of wheels."

Well Olle continued his whittling and his deliveries and he used the sled to haul firewood for people that winter. He saved his quarters and dollars and occaisional fives and tens and finally bought an beat up old pickup truck. By now he was old enough to drive and he filled his pocket with salt and puttered out to the woods with the pickup. The magpies flew down and strutted around and the magpie said "that's a set of wheels, but I really wanted a Saturn or Lexus." And off they flew.

Olle was so sad. "I will get you one," he called after the magpie. "Don't bother!" The magpie called back, "What I want now is a really fine house."

Well Olle went back to work, his carving and delivery business had grown so much he now employed a number of other boys, and the pickup made delivery of heavier items easier. By now he was making furniture as well. He saved his twenties and fifties and hundreds and bought a nice house on the edge of town near the woods. Then he filled his pocket with salt went out in the yard and called the magpie. He flew down and looked around, pecking at the windows, and eyeing it all. "You call this cracker box a place to live? Not for the likes of me. It doesn't have a pool or a satellite disk!" And he flew off.

Olle was so sad. "I will get you one," he called after the magpie. "Don't bother!" The magpie called back, "What I want now is a lot of money."

Well Olle worked hard, he diversified and invested. He went public and built up his capital. Finally one day his accountant told him he had $100 grand in the bank. He put on his best suit, the pocket full of salt and headed for the woods, which he now owned. The magpie flew down, and looked him over. He inspected his Rolex. He quizzed him about his investments and holdings. "Yes." He said. "That will do! You may sprinkle the salt on my tail and make your wish."

The moment had come at last. He dug into his pocket and dropped a pinch of salt on the bird's tail.

"Well, what is your wish?" the magpie asked.

Indeed, what should he wish for? He had been so busy working, he had completely forgotten what he wanted to wish for.

"One.." said the magpie. "Two..." "Just a moment, just a moment, let me think." Olle said. But for the life of him, Olle could not think of what he wanted to have.

"Three," said the magpie and flipped his tail feathers, flying off so the salt fell off. Then the magpie laughed and laughed.

Olle glared at the Bird. "I think I will buy myself a gun and shoot you" Olle said. "That wouldn't be nice, would it?", said the magpie. "Don't you have everything you ever wanted, and all this without having to make a single wish?"

Olle stood there with his mouth and eyes wide open. It was true. He already had everything he could wish for, and he hadn't even noticed. "Well I declare," he said. "I worked so hard just to be able to sprinkle some salt on your tail feathers and it was all quite unnecessary." "Yes," laughed the magpie. "How do you explain that?" and he flew off and was gone.

Olle never did try to explain it. He settled down in his house, married a sweet young woman and raised several fine sons, who - sorry to say - never learned the value of salt in a magpie's tale.

In Swedish folklore there is usually a stress on hard work and discipline leading to prosperity and well being - even when making wishes. This tale I found in Great Swedish Fairy Tales Illustrated by John Bauer, translated by Holger Lundbergh illustrates those values.It is interesting to contrast the ambitions of the boy with that of the magpie. The boy, though wistful, is content with a little, the magpie, full of ambition, is constantly demanding the best, and never satsified. Yet the boy achieves the best through economy and diligence and using the resources he had at hand.

Magpies are black and white colored relatives of the crow family of birds, the corvids. They are related to jackdaws, jays, rooks and ravens as well. They usually live in flocks and are rather noisy, often gathering in roosts, when not tending their young in monogamous pairs. The name "magpie" is thought to refer to "a chattering female" perhaps related to "Maggie". They are found in both North America and much of Europe and Asia. They build elaborate and conspicuous domed nests comprised of as many as 1,500 sticks cemented together with a layer of mud - with a thorny roof to keep out predators. After all that work, the magpies use the the nest only once.

Magpies are attracted to shiny things which they steal and add to their hoard. Magpies are known to practicing "piracy" - stealing food from other birds, sometimes teaming up. I once watched a pair take a freshly killed meal away from a hawk, strutting around and around, worrying him, and sneaking bites when his attention was on the other bird. My grandfather had a tame magpie for a while, he had even taught it to talk a little. Grandpa's magpie often brought things home from the neighbors, occasionally off their clotheslines.

There were periodic efforts to exterminate magpies between the 1880's and the 1930's in the U. S. They were thought to be destructive of crops, harassing livestock and a threat to songbird populations. In 1989, Members of the British House of Lords rejected the suggestion they be protected by law, and in America taking pot shots at crows and magpies is still seen as a public service by some. Their depredations are exaggerated however

They pair for life, so they are rarely seen alone - hence "One for sorrow" - it's unlucky to see a single magpie. There is a widespread folk belief that you can discern the future by counting the number of magpies flying past.

The rhyme goes like this:
One for sorrow, Two for mirth,
Three for a wedding, Four for a birth.
Five for rich, Six for poor,
Seven for a witch -- I can tell you no more.

Another version is:
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.

A third found in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is:
One's sorrow, two's mirth,
Three's a wedding, four's a birth,
Five's a christening, six a dearth,
Seven's heaven, eight is hell,
And nine's the devil his old self.

Magpies have long been associated, in Europe, with the uncanny - death, witchcraft etc., and there are various superstitions about them.

There is a Finnish folk tale about a too-talkative magpie that informed a man he would die in 24 hours. God was so annoyed with this brazen behavior that He grapped the bird by its stubby tail and pulled its tail feathers into their present long slender form, as a reminder of the Magpie's effrontery.

An excellent source of information on this intelligent family of birds is Bird Brains by Candace Savage. Another new book is In the Company of Crows and Ravens by John Marzluff and Tony Angell - which examines the surprising interactions between crows and humans. See also The Magpies by T. R. Birkhead. And for another story, which views magpies as innocents, a Korean magpie tale.

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