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Country notebook, by Philip Bowern

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: March 10, 2014

Hills
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How many magpies is too many? If you are a songbird about to pair up, build a nest, lay eggs and raise a brood, one magpie in the vicinity is probably too much. That is one reason magpies are on Natural England’s general licence, which means they can be shot all year as a pest species. They may be handsome black and white birds with a racous call and a distinctive dipping flight, but numbers are soaring and that spells trouble for everything from game birds, like patridge and pheasant, to songbirds.

Spring sunshine brings out the birds. Yellow hammers and long-tailed tits are both in evidence in my bit of South Devon, the former vying for the highest branch of the tree, the latter, in flocks of 20 or more, swarming all over trees and bushes, looking for insects to fill up on after a hungry winter. Walking the dogs the other day I saw no less than 14 magpies gathered in one short stretch of hedgerow. At least one pair have started building

a nest in the tree at the edge of the garden, a messy affair of sticks.

Magpies will not tolerate too much competition from others of their kind, which is why gamekeepers trying to trap and cull them often use a Larsen trap in which a captured bird in a cage lures in rivals.

The “decoy” bird is kept in one compartment, and when another bird lands on top, it falls through a one-way gate. Legally the decoy birds must have a perch, shelter, food and water. The RSPB says: “We are not opposed to legal, site-specific control of magpies, nor to the legal use of Larsen or other cage traps, as long as the general licence conditions are strictly adhered to.”

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