• Dispatch #4 •
The Korean magpie, kkachi, is a national symbol and is thought to be a bearer of good luck.
A brushstroke of blue on the wing and of green on the tail. It was always a lovely thing to see and it is one of my favorite memories of Korea.
When I lived in Seoul, I looked for it everywhere. Each time I went to a palace or hiked a mountain, it was like I had a sensor in the corner of my eye, ready to spot the slightest flutter of a wing, the shaking of a tree. Sometimes I think I did develop a sixth sense if they were around. I knew that they were near if I was around trees, if the air smelled clean and crisp. I only needed to look up to see a nest.
Kkachi (까치), or the Korean magpie, is one of the symbols of Korean identity. It is not limited to the Korean peninsula and is also known as the Oriental magpie, Asian magpie, or Chinese magpie. You can easily distinguish it by the sapphire blue hues on some of its wing feathers and emerald green ones on the tail.
It was always heartening to see birds’ nests built in a city as big as Seoul. If these birds have hope in living in a dense urban jungle, then so do I, I once thought during a freezing winter. I encountered them in different seasons—playing in the snow, chattering during spring, building their nests up in the trees, etc. Like other species in a city, they have learned to adapt by picking out the places where they can roost.
In Korean culture, the kkachi symbolizes good luck—that it ushered in good news and invited good people. It has become a national emblem, in company with the tiger and the hibiscus, as well as official symbol of several Korean cities. You can find it on boxes, jewelry, paintings, and other merchandise in local shops, as well as on folk paintings, sometimes depicting it with the tiger, who is also thought to bear good fortune.
Kkachi also figure in the country’s strong kite culture, though the common pattern you will see during celebrations like New Year, seollal, and others, is rectangular in shape with a hole in the middle. Like on the other kites, most people write “Bad luck away, good luck stay” on the kites before letting them fly.
But nothing beats seeing a live bird in a busy city. Or lots of them all at once. Such lovely collective nouns you can use for a group of magpies. A tittering. A tiding. A gulp (!). A murder. A charm. I encountered a murder of kkachi once, during a second tour of the Secret Garden of Changdeok palace.
I remember it quite vividly. I was with my friend Kate that day. Instead of listening to the tour guide, whose spiel I had already heard before, my gaze wandered to a break in the path. The clearing had at least six of them all in one place, without any regard for the people a few meters away from them.
There is something contagious in the calm of other species. Watching birds relax made me feel that no natural catastrophes would happen—no earthquake, no tsunami, no superstorm. And perhaps by extension, our personal catastrophes—work was going to be fine, no friend will betray you, your family is healthy and getting along. We are all going to be ok.
The clearing in the palace is accessible only by a tour, and so perhaps control of the flow of humanity lets other species flourish. To me, seeing birds at play was like spotting fireflies—a sign of an environment that was still ok. Beyond luck, I believe that seeing these birds in an urban environment is a sign of habitability. I would always see them in palace grounds, up in the mountains, and in the many parks that Seoul has.
I actually own some feathers from several kkachi. These are not poached from these birds—which would be wrong—but are those they had shed and left behind, often in the mountains that Seoul has in abundance. There is even a mountain in the city called Kkachisan, literally “Kkachi mountain”. I can only imagine how many there used to exist before. Picking up these feathers, I’m always amazed to see that the blue and green iridescence had not simply melted away like magic. (I’m still wondering what art project I can do with these feathers, but until then, they are safely in storage. I’m hoping to find more.)
Studies of kkachi abound, especially in Seoul National University (SNU), whose beautiful campus is situated in Gwanaksan, one of the bigger mountains in Seoul that I imagine is home to a wide variety of other species, both of the winged and non-winged kind. Known by its scientific name of Pica pica sericea, the kkachi is studied for its breeding ecology and its intelligent behavior, among other things. I am particularly struck by this story of magpies displaying aggressive behavior to this unlucky hardworking SNU researcher who previously visited their nests and was unfortunately, or perhaps interestingly, recognized by these birds. I wonder if Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote The Raven, a close relative of magpies, would have found these birds as fascinating as I do.
Returning to Korea this year made me happy to see these little guys again. It’s nice to have visual associations with a country that goes beyond its tourism campaigns and in these little moments with nature that we can thankfully still have, if we just pay attention. Beyond a superstitious belief of incoming good fortune, I think that in the anthropogenic age these should be treated as a status update for the planet. Yes, we’re here, it’s still worth sticking around, the kkachi seem to say. The next time you see birds playing in your backyard, not in a panic about predators or looking unhealthy from pollution and hunger, thank your lucky stars, let them be, and hope there are many more.