Observe a European magpie, Pica pica, balancing on a perch in the wind. She’s a whirl of black and white feather-tempest, a stunning aves with a glint in each onyx eye. If sunbeams infuse among her barbules, purple-blue-green iridescence radiates out as a thing to behold.
I live in a small attic flat on a hill in the city. There’s a big balcony and a view over slate rooves to a wide southern sky. From here, I watch all my rooftop birds as masters of their medium ~ the craft of flight in the dynamics of the toposphere. Yet they are so easily coaxed here in urbania.
I feed them. I put little water bowls out for them. And there are hidy spots between pots for them to forage and take cover in storms. I’m under no illusion ~ they come for the opportunities. But the bird-love I have for all my high fliers is unconditional. It’s a kind of peace.
Bound a little at the moment by chemotherapy, I am five out of six rounds completed, tired and in some pain. So much is still uncertain about the cancer cells that may or may not remain, yet my gratitude extends to the magpies who visit my eagle’s eyrie every day. They bring me both smiles and daily stories, something I cherish very much in life.
Magpie ~ a strange name. The ‘pie’ stems from the proto indo-european for sharp or pointed, pikros, pike ~ pie refers to the pointy beak. Tradition followed that other black and white bird species were also named ‘pied’. And the ‘mag’? Medieval Margaret gave monikor to all their squawks and chirrups, poor woman. Magpies can be shrill and jarring to our ears. No doubt, they are sweet comfort to other magpies, and that’s what really matters.
I treasure the spirit of Maggie. She bounces along the balcony rail like a toy spring, and with a waltzy rythym to her tail-flicks and neck twists. She strikes poses of classic avian alertness. And when she swoops low over other birds at feeding time, her avumbras are used like strikes to disorient and temper her rivals (clever corvid).
Magpies are feisty, yes ~ unpaired birds seem eternally unsettled. I once filmed them fighting; a long bout of pure angst and indignation. Taking it in turns, they stand on each other’s legs to immobilise and strike. It’s exhausting even to watch. They are also natural and voracious predators of baby songbirds and eggs. It’s all part of nature, of course, and it is us who have stepped out of the sustainable patterns of interconnected flow.
Perhaps, a magpie’s recorded self observance in mirrors, like ourselves, gives rise to a folly; the reflected self image as superior being. Perhaps, if the Earth had less mirrors.
Imagine if they were taken away, their sounds and characters just a memory. In my favorite little copse, or out here on the balcony, I’d grieve their gift to the biophony. And I’d be angry at the injustice of their forced and cruel absence. Yet it happens often in Britain. And I’ve felt these very real emotions on numerous occasions.
I’ve thought for a while now that Pica persecution speaks more of our own intelligence vanity. We recognise ourselves in them, and for some this is just too much of a threat. For my part, they are loved. It seems to me, their defining presence represents survival; adaptation to city, farm or wild. I admire them as witty opportunists. With their dapper blacks and soft, pure whites, my hope for their existence extends way into the future; a time where I do imagine, one day, they may just take over the world.
“Perhaps it was Maggie, perhaps not. In solitary moments magpies [Pica hudsonia] will perch on a branch and mutter soft soliloquies of whines and squeals and chatterings, oblivious to what goes on around them. It is one of those things, I suppose, intelligence now and then does, must in fact now and then do, must think, must play, must imagine, must talk to itself. … What, finally, intelligence could be for: finding your way back.” ~ Stanley Crawford, A Garlic Testament: Seasons on a Small New Mexico Farm (1992).