Magpies are the size of crows, black and white in colour, with razor blade beaks and lit-from-within rusty red-yellow eyes. Generally, they are a stand-offish bird that issue clumsy, slightly-off-tune songs and peck grubs and mites from the yard. They are highly intelligent and, as I found in my research (because I am that nerd) that they are the oldest living ancestor of songbirds as we know them. So there’s a useless tidbit to amaaaaze your friends and family with*.
(* Disclaimer- none of my friends nor family have so far been wowed by that knowledge.)
The reason I have researched magpies rests solely in the fact that I am 100% completely and wholly terrified of them. Not that they are special- I harbour a phobia (healthy?) fear of all birds. All of them. Every single bird that exists in the world.
“Certainly not parrots?”, You ask.
Brightly coloured squawking death machines, say I.
“What about bluebirds? Chickadees? Tufted Titmice?”
Indigo traitors; tiny devils; adorably-named spawns of Hell!, I reply
“Hummingbirds,” You reason? “No one could be afraid of hummingbirds!”
Feathered BEES. And that is that.
But. I have been actively courting the gang of magpies that owns my neighbourhood. They came with the house (we recently moved to a nicer place, by the way, for those of you who didn’t know). I do this by scattering cat food around for them. Again- I read online that they like it. It does feel strange, though, feeding a bird dry pellets of “tuna and rice flavoured meal,” but whatever, I never saw a house cat catch any live fish or harvest rice- so I guess that’s about even.
*Most of these photos taken from the internet, because I am not about to go bird-watching for ya’ll
There are two groups of magpies that take turns pecking through our yard. I categorise them in terms of John Hughes movie tropes (I am, if nothing else, a product of 80’s crap cinema):
One group is named after the Three Stooges- Larry, Moe, and Curly- as they tend to peck at one another, but still hang in a set. These are the popular crowd, the jocks and prom queens and James Spader characters. I can’t actually tell them apart.
The other group consists of the weirdos and misfits: “Half-Beak” who is missing half of her top beak (clever name, I know), “Twitchy” who has feathers that are often stuck out at weird angles and may have a limp, and “Shemp” who is very round and friendly-but-nervous and sometimes hangs out with the first crew.
Then, there is the loner that O named “Midnight,” for his solid-black beak, which none of the others are too fond of. He is gigantic and menacing. His beak is curved down at the end, like he bashed it against someone’s skull too hard and crooked it permanently. He descends on the other groups and scatters them so he can steal their food. I fear him the most, so I feed him the most. I’m pretty sure he’s waiting for me to not show up with the goods, and then he’ll peck my eyes out.
And- to be fair- this very specific fear of eye-pecking is justified. And not in the “I watched Hitchcock as a child” kind of justified- but deep-in-the-truth justified.See: In the Spring, also known as “Swooping Season,” also known as right now, the males become highly protective over their nests and ATTACK HUMANS. They *literally* attack the back of your head repeatedly until you flee (often crying) from their own private war zone.
Unlike some other swooping birds here, they do not engage in mild hair-grazing one-off tags that make you grumble up at them in mild annoyance. Magpies (and Plovers, too) are relentless fiends that come at you again and again, heavy bodies banging at the base of your skull, beaks snapping at your face. They have caused cyclists to lose control and fall out into traffic, pedestrians to suffer skin and eye wounds, a friend of mine cowered in a bush for over an hour as a child while under attack and got a sound whupping from her worried parents for being late from school. She says it was worth the spanking to let the bird wear itself out rather than face its wrath.
Last year, I was still commuting to University several days a week by bike. There was a magpie that had decided that he hated me. I tried not to take it personally at first, but soon came to realise that it was, specifically, me- and that he held the same vindictive rage as a certain ex of mine, who shall remain nameless. In both cases, it was merely the fact that I continued to exist in the world that seemed to enrage them to violence. In both cases, I tried everything I could to appease my assailants. I don’t know which worked out better in the end, but I can say that- after everything- I still have both eyes. Needless to say, this persnickety magpie reversed any progress I had made with my ornithophobia (that means “real scared of birds,” ya’ll). Not that I had made much, really.
There are birds in Australia that gave me hope- the bumbling Lorikeets (or “tree Skittles” as my friend dubbed them that flit around drunk on rotten tree-fruits and chirp like bridesmaids; the Cockatoo that preen and waggle their neon-yellow crests, but also scream like pterodactyls when they flock; the Galah, which are pink and grey and congregate in plumy crowds; Kookaburra are fat and “laugh” like a crowd of drunks when it’s about to rain; and the simpleton Ibis that is basically a goofy chicken with a big, hooked beak that pillage garbage cans like confused pirates.
I like Ibis and Kookaburras, and the rest I have a wary respect for. Except the crows, which are like American crows- except with white irises rimmed in black. WHITE IRISES RIMMED IN BLACK! Imagine 1990’s Marilyn Manson, but actually frightening. But not aggressive. Not like the magpie. Magpies are incredibly intelligent- and can be downright hateful. Real Scary. Not pop-star scary.
So, when we moved into this house, and I realised we had a PARLIAMENT of magpies (look it up- that’s the real term!) about the place, I reckoned I had to take some preventative measures. And so I went online and learned too much about them.
They are HIGHLY intelligent and can not only recognise themselves in mirrors (besides human and magpies, “only four ape species, bottlenose dolphins and Asian elephants have demonstrated this ability”), but they can also remember HUMAN faces . In the face of certain doom, I made the decision to align myself with the enemy- to endear myself to them- feed them, woo them, hope they like my knock-off Fancy Feast because we can’t afford brand-name. I bought cat food and began to sprinkle it in the yard like a deranged Mary Poppins “tuppence” pigeon-lady.
I took the video below this morning- can you hear the FEAR in my voice?
I started in June, when we moved. It is now September and my small, humble-yet-brave parliament of feathered neighbours has not attacked me. Yet.
The Stooges and the Misfits take shifts, one accepting treats in the morning, the other at night. Half-Beak comes around whenever she wants, and Twitchy does a funny sideways hop all the way up to my feet when I’m outside. I expect that one day she’ll let me pet her. I expect that will happen before I am ready, but if she’s real close, I’ll try it just the same and we’ll probably both freak out and avoid each other for a while…. speaking from past experience, that is. It’s always cool in the end, though. Usually.
Anyway, Spring has sprung and eggs are being laid. Which means that magpie dads (and a few mommas) are starting to get protective and ornery. I am hoping that my strategy of befriending-ahead-of-troublesome-times has taken hold. It’s a skill learned through life, and was “legitimised” by fancy pants fluff-n-stuff professors at university while I trudged through their lectures over the past few years. One that, interestingly, few actually followed themselves- looking at you, MB, you Party City Gandalph-beard having elitist and stealer of credit from grad students writings, you fascist of using the capital T in The University… – if you read it and wonder- it’s YOU (oh, the shade! Somebody stop me. But don’t. But do.) but that’s a tale for another time. Or not, if- according to him- I understand the “potential ramifications on my career/reputation.” Ahem.
Where was I?
I fed them and made efforts to stand out with them while they ate. I suffered through their cocked-head glances, forcing myself not to run- not even from Midnight. I let them steal leftover pupusas off the patio table. They allow me to walk safely from my back door to the laundry line. Twice now, they have approached as I lounged in the yard-hammock reading books.
This one is getting bold- s/he came to steal my pupusas!
I think we have a peace accord. Though, I have to wonder if they have come to see me as a source of food and will become angry if I fail to produce. I wonder, as all good peace peacebuilders should, whether my efforts are creating lasting positive change, or merely acting as an uniformed band-aid treatment that plasters over the harm and allows deeper infection to brew under the surface.
I don’t know.
But if they ever turn against me- I’m making the kids fetch the laundry until December.
Because it’s also HILARIOUS to watch others get swooped.