29 September 2008

The life of birds

LightForm VIA pair of magpies [1] flashes across the edge of the paddock, the black and white a brilliant, swift streak of contrast, of non-colour, against the dull yellowish-greens, taupes, and greys of the overcast day. The birds arc around a pair of startled lambs, veer up towards the old apple, dive behind a manuka, and disappear below the terrace. A minute later one bird reappears, flying straight over the paddock; the other follows a few seconds later.

Territorial dispute? Some kind of courtship behaviour — the male demonstrating his skill and strength at flying or the female testing it? I don't know, but the aerobatics seem no less spectacular for my ignorance. I suppose someone's studied magpie behaviour rigorously enough to say what's behind the display, but I'd rather not think about how many hours of observation must have gone into that kind of research. Watching birds — one of life's great delights — can be mind-numbingly tedious when the primary aim is to test an hypothesis.

The spectacular flight of those birds — fast, complex, apparently unpredictable — remains vivid in my memory as I think about the physics, the aerodynamics, the physiology. My personal knowledge of those matters is rudimentary but as a species we now know enough to build machines that can fly faster and higher than any bird and carry loads many orders of magnitude heavier. What we can't do, and can't come anywhere near, is build a machine even remotely as agile as a magpie, or that tui weaving now through the still leafless branches of the Robinia, or the two riroriro I saw scrapping in and above the leatherwood on Knights Track. When it comes to flight, the examples of our inadequacy are innumerable.

Perhaps one day we might be able to make something with those capabilities. But whatever the materials it will be made of, it will still be essentially an inert lump of those materials, waiting for some human to provide instructions. What it will not be is alive; what a bird has that this constructed device will not, is life.

One magpie returns, flying low over the paddock then suddenly swooping upwards to the power lines. It slows, hangs momentarily in the air and grasps the line with its feet. As it folds its wings it breaks into that joyful, ebullient, warbling song. Whatever one thinks of magpies — and that's often not an appreciative thought because of their belligerence, their propensity for attacking other birds [2] and humans (I have direct personal experience of that from just last week as I pedalled home) — one can't help admiring them. The ratbags are so magnificently alive.

1. Australian magpie, Gymnorhina tibicen. The other birds specifically mentioned (in paragraph 3) are the tui (Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae) and riroriro (grey warbler, Gerygone igata).
2. Despite popular folklore, magpies are not likely to have important effects on native birds except perhaps in a few limited situations. The folklore probably arises because magpies' interactions with other species tend to be highly conspicuous. While magpies do sometimes kill other birds, the attacks seldom result in anything more than displacing the other bird about 50–100 metres.
Innes J, Spurr E, Morgan D 2004. Magpies are not serious pests. Kararehe kino: Vertebrate pest research. Issue 4 (June 2004): 6–7. ISSN 1175–9844. Retrieved 29 September 2008 from http://www.landcareresearch.co.nz/publications/newsletters/possnews/KarareheKino4.pdf
Morgan D, Waas JR, Innes J 2006 The relative importance of Australian magpies as nest predators of rural birds in New Zealand. New Zealand journal of zoology 33: 17–29. Retrieved 29 September 2008 from http://www.royalsociety.org.nz/includes/download.aspx?ID=95100 (pdf, 440 Kb).

LightForm IV

The only good photos I have of magpies I've already posted. So, you get a tui and some play, which given the way magpies play, might not be entirely inappropriate.
1. Not a bird. An experiment with light.
2. Tui on flowering harakeke, Pohangina valley, December 2005
(click to enlarge it).
3. Another experiment with light.

Photos and words © 2008 Pete McGregor


Don't Feed The Pixies said...

I love the images. Much of mankinds history is based on trying to mimic the animals - this was the original dream of the Wright Brothers.

Personally i hope we never do build anything as wonderful as we find in nature. if we did manage this would we still find beauty in the natural world? i hope so

peregrina said...

Pete, that first image said "flight" to me as soon as I saw it, then afterwards I wondered how much my perception had been influenced by the title of this post. Hard to tell, now the thought is there, but there definitely is something bird-in-flight-like about it in an abstract sort of way.

Magpies' wardling always seems so quintessentially rural-New Zealand to me, probably because of school holidays spent on two different North Canterbury farms where magpies, but no native birds, inhabited the macrocapas that sheltered the homesteads. It's the sound that says, "You're home!" and stirs a thrill deep inside me when I return to Aotearoa after living abroad for any length of time. Then there's Denis Glover's poem, and Pew in "Footrot Flats" - both poem and the comic strips are NZ to the core, too.

Ironical, isn't it, when those cheeky ratbags aren't even natives, but belong on the other side of the Tasman?

Bob McKerrow said...

But all the beautiful crops soon went
To the mortgage man instead
and Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said

And Freddie Mac and Fannie May
The Magpies took them the same way


pohanginapete said...

[Note: If you followed the link in the first comment before I deleted it, you should probably run your malware checker. I don't think it loads anything (AVG and spybot turned up nothing and Online Armor didn't warn me of anything untoward), but McAfee's site advisor warns it's a known phishing or social engineering site.]

dftp, glad you like the photos. I suppose there's a place for extraordinary technology. It's not a substitute for nature (or shouldn't be considered such) — at its best, technology only complements nature.

Peregrina, it was that quality of the first photo that encouraged me to use it for the post — that and the simple fact that I liked it :^) And I agree about the irony of magpies' being introduced yet characteristic; a bit like macrocarpas and gorse.

Bob, I love your addition to Glover's poem. Wonderful!

Anonymous said...

Some people consider the forefront of civilization to be when man conquers nature (figures out how to get over those mountains, cross that sea, that desert, etc.) It is also the foolish pride of man to constantly try and compete with nature, thus the building of technology to fly like the birds.

pohanginapete said...

Samurai, the expression "conquering nature" makes me brace for the bad news that seems inevitably to follow. It seems usually to mean "exploiting" (at best) or "destroying", and I wonder why advances in technology or other achievements have, so often, to be couched in such confrontational terms. I see nothing inherently wrong with the desire to fly, to break free from one of our ultimate constraints, but if it's motivated by a desire to outdo nature — to prove ourselves in some way superior — then I'm pessimistic. We might be clever enough to manage it in the short term, but I see little evidence we're wise enough to achieve it in the long term.

Thanks for calling in :^)

Anne-Marie said...

Great piece, Pete. I love the vividness of your writing. I can't imagine a world without birds, and I don't want to. They're such beautiful, energetic, noisy and - as you say - alive little ratbags. And what else would entertain me while I'm sitting on your porch? [Apart from the sheep that is.]

A little word on the last post. You accuse Amelie of being "cat gullible". Hmmmmm. I suggest you read through the comments and decide who's REALLY "cat gullible", Pete. I'd start with you and the Clandestine Samurai ...

pohanginapete said...

Anne-Marie — thanks! :^) But nah, cats have no power over me. I choose to feed them, talk to them, stroke them, scruffle their ears, let them curl up on my bed, and so on... My heart is stone; no cat can manipulate me.

Now back to the real world...

Anne-Marie said...


Brenda Schmidt said...

Magpies are magnificent. Great post, Pete.

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Brenda! These will differ from your magpies — ours is the introduced Australian bell magpie. Very intelligent, and sometimes very annoying too. ;^)

Michael said...

Magpies (and ravens) are abundant in my corner of the world. Sometimes they're like a gang of annoying teenagers, up to no good waking me up with their damn squawking and sometimes they are scattering carrion eaters, carrying the souls of roadkill creatures up to the heavens as I roar past in my car.

pohanginapete said...

Michael, although the magpies here differ from yours taxonomically, I suspect they share many other characteristics. While overseas I met a fair variety of magpies, treepies, ravens, crows, and jackdaws, and always enjoyed the encounters, even when the circumstances weren't exactly salubrious.

"...carrying the souls of roadkill creatures up to the heavens..." I like that.