22 December 2010

The lives of magpies and others

Birdling's Flat, Canterbury, Aotearoa; March 2008

A magpie flies low and fast across the paddock, through the early morning sunlight, crosses close to the verandah and disappears. I don’t know where it lands, but I can hear the harsh, demanding call of its youngster somewhere nearby. Those magpies have invested a lot in that lanky, scruffy kid. For weeks now the family’s been foraging in the front paddock, and before that the parents would have been feeding the chick in the nest; before that, incubating; before that, nest-building. What else do they do with their lives? When do they finally push the youngster away — when they’re about to start the process all over again?

Is that all there is to a magpie’s life? The irresistible imperative to reproduce, to replace itself? To what extent might it be said that a magpie thinks, rather than responds to some kind of inchoate urge — the wordless voice that says this is what I must do, feed the child, protect it, ensure its survival until it, too, might reproduce?

A month or so ago I walked down the short distance down the road to Tokeawa Stream. I counted the crushed remains of three fledgling magpies on the tarmac, and the enormity of what those flattened forms represented struck me hard. All that effort, wasted. All that potential, gone — none of those three would ever know the joy of harassing hawks (I anthropomorphise, I admit); none would ever know the delicious warmth of morning sun after a cold winter’s night, the brief ecstasy of mating, the appeasement of that urge to raise one’s own young.

In a sense, though, those deaths were necessary, or the world would be overrun by magpies. Still, ... I wonder... One can argue whether what’s good for the many outweighs what’s good for the one, but what’s irrefutable is that the two are sometimes irreconcilable.

I sit here, writing at the kitchen table, thinking about magpies and the lives of animals. A kahu flies with slow wingbeats over the corner of the paddock; the early, warm sun lights its body and the underside of its wings. Pohangina Valley, December 2010 A pale, faded blue sky behind; the tough, sparsely-leafed branches of the lacebark below. A tui sprints across in the other direction, fast and noisy, and two swallows swoop and jink close to the house. Several starling families forage in the thin paddock where the wiry seedheads of ryegrass and the bolting Californian thistle patch signify the arrival of summer. The starlings move restlessly with that typical jerky movement and those sudden changes of direction as if they’re constantly distracted by another morsel: that one, just over there — or maybe there! Like magpies, their young have calls that could hardly be described as complex, let alone melodious, and I wonder whether all young birds have that same characteristic — they need only one call: “Feed me!” — and whether or to what extent they learn their adult songs or discover their ability to sing. Moreover, to what extent are these birds, or any animal for that matter, aware of their own imperatives beyond the urge to answer them?
I wonder — perhaps the characteristic that most sets we humans apart from all other animals is the awareness of our own thoughts, which in turn enables us to wonder. If so, perhaps Salman Rushdie got it right when he argued that doubt is a central condition of human beings, and perhaps conviction and self-assurance might not be the virtues they’re so often claimed to be.
I wonder about awareness in the lives of magpies and others.
I wonder — is it a blessing or a curse?

Photos and original text © 2010 Pete McGregor


Ruahines said...

Kia ora Pete,
I am not so sure being a human parent differs all that much from the parental duties of the magpie. And the magpie is only saddled with their young for that one season, we get em' for much longer than that, and that cry 'Feed Me!' gets louder and more insistent when our "little birds" become teenagers! :)
Have a great Christmas Pete - trying again with Taylor on Boxing Day to get out so will be in touch later next week.

pohanginapete said...

Kia ora Robb — "I am not so sure being a human parent differs all that much from the parental duties of the magpie" — I love the way you put that, and suspect you're right ;^)

Merry Christmas to you and Tara and the boys, and best of luck for Boxing Day.

Rain said...

I like magpies whenever I am in the country where they live-- which is not in my part of Oregon. I do wonder as you do about birds, animals. Who knows if it's a curse or a blessing. It is what it is :)

pohanginapete said...

Rain, I could add that whether it's a blessing or a curse, I enjoy it. But I think your attitude — "It is what it is" — is probably the best. Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck wrote a marvellous essay on that (they called it "non-teleological thinking") in The Log from the Sea of Cortez.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

ok - so stunning photo, but the words - as ever - are equally graphic. Is awareness a curse? I heard something on TV a while ago that refuted the argument that because cats don't recognise themselves in the mirror that means they have no sense of self. The argument was basically that they just werent as obsessed with image as we are

So who knows what the magpie thinks. They are as alien to us as we sometimes are to each other.

Merry christmas pete - keep writing your beautiful posts

pohanginapete said...

Hungry pixie, I can't imagine anything being as self-obsessed as humans. Animals seem to know what's important.

Thanks, and you have a great Christmas too :^)

leonie wise said...

"In a sense, though, those deaths were necessary, or the world would be overrun by magpies. Still, ... I wonder... One can argue whether what’s good for the many outweighs what’s good for the one, but what’s irrefutable is that the two are sometimes irreconcilable."

I remember having a conversation with a life coach I had for a time. I find it hard to reconcile the 'what's good for the many' sometimes, especially when it comes to suffering of any kind. Part of me recognises and understand that death is an integral part of life and that it is essential, but the suffering of people because of things that could be remedied still sits heavy on my heart.

I love the description phrases you have used for the bird families. I feel like I have been transported to your front porch.

All the best for the festive season to you Pete, I am very much looking forward to meeting you in the new year.

Zhoen said...

Curse or blessing? Yes.

herhimnbryn said...

Hallo Pete,
As I type this there is an adult Magpie at one of the bird baths in my garden. It's offspring is constantly pestering it to be fed. It has been crying 'feed me' since sun up ( 4.50am)! Patient parent, drinks, baths and THEN turns it's attention to the young one.

It's not dead magpies that Dog I find on our morning walks, but blue tongue lizards. Yesterday I counted nine, most halfway across the road, trying to get back into the bush...

Wishing you a peaceful new year.

lisanz said...

Recently, when we were out walking, one of our dogs got his paw caught in his training lead and went into a complete blind panic. As we tried to free him, he howled and bit us so much we had trouble getting to him. At the same time, his (adopted) brother, went into a similar panic at the sight of Finn's distress - he too tried to bite us and scratch us, convinced (it seemed) that we were the cause of Finn's pain. He trembled with anxiety as we worked to free Finn - and I thought "does he empathise?? what is going on here??".

Are there levels of awareness? What was Harri's response that day?


Anonymous said...

Pete, Your post struck home for me. I had a similar encounter recently; a dead Ruby-crowned Kinglet. My eyes tear up at the image.... Your writing, as always, evocative and thought provoking.... I really can't answer that question re: awareness. I would like to think that awareness is a blessing but then again... --Maureen

20th Century Woman said...

Hi, Pete. It's nice to feel that I know those magpies. I loved this post. The subject is one I have thought a lot about. I like to remind myself that I am an animal like the magpies, and everything about me has roots and in my animalness. I and they are one.

In Napier I met a man, rather pompous one retired from teaching in a "Christian" university in India, who wanted to tell me about New Zealand. "There are no animals in New Zealand," he said, "only birds." I wanted to reply, "well, there's you and me, and anyhow birds are animals. You mean mammals." Somehow I felt he wouldn't like being corrected. So I just smiled.

I hope your Christmas was a good one and best wishes for the new year.

A big thank you for a lovely visit to the Pohangina Valley.

Beth said...

I've often wondered about this question too. And gotten no answers - just a question that remains. Best wishes for the New Year, Pete. Thank you for being there. (Without the awareness, I doubt either of us would be writing, eh?)

pohanginapete said...

Leonie, that's a good point — witnessing suffering is hard even under the most understandable of circumstances, but when it seems needless,... well, it's an understatement to say I struggle with that.
    Let's hope for good ambling and verandah-sitting weather on the 13th ;)

Zhoen, true. Perfectly put.

HHnB, thank you. Nine blue-tongues?! Awful. I hate hitting animals like that — even the little frogs that appear on the night roads when it rains. Possums here are pests, and I occasionally hit one, but I could never do it deliberately.
    Wishing you and the local fauna a happy and safe New Year.

Lisa, knowing those two (virtually joined at the hip), I don't find Harris' response unexpected at all. What does seem utterly surprising to me is the research showing how troops of baboons (if I remember correctly) show behaviour clearly suggesting they have no sense of empathy. But even if we manage to figure out the true story, we'll never be able to enter the consciousness of another being. That, to me, seems the ultimate mystery and frustration.
    Happy New Year, Lisa. Looking forward to catching up with you and the family :^)

Maureen, thank you. I guess what we think is up to us: I recognise the curse but appreciate the blessing. Good to hear you're enjoying a beautiful, remote place — long may it continue. Happy New Year :^)

20thCW, it was a delight to show you and Jerry around, and I'm glad you got to see the magpie family — the youngster seems to have disappeared now. I did have a good Christmas, too, thank you; I met up with family and had a wonderful time. Hard to believe I'm back here already.

Beth, very best wishes for the New Year, too. Actually, I just recently became aware of the difference between awareness and mindfulness (just words, admittedly, but they describe different concepts). Maybe I'll write about that sometime :^)

jacqueline b said...

Hi Pete,

a curse of course!

I do hope the stray dogs here in UlaanBaatar don't have it. Most dogs are pretty vacant and childish. But here, so many of them are gut wrenching to interact with. In Australia I might come across a dog with that special look in his eyes only on rare occasions - smart, sharp, gutsy, full of hidden depths and a kind of stoic calm. I want to take them all home SO bad.
best wishes, from jacqinmongolia

pohanginapete said...

Jacq, I know what you mean about those dogs. India was heart-wrenching.

UB, eh? I hope you get to travel around a bit there. I'd love to go back; just a few days ago I met up with friends I'd travelled with in Mongolia (they'd organised the trip) and it brought back good memories. I'd like to hear about your travels there. Cheers Jacq.

Lydia said...

I guess it is a blurse, sometimes blessing-sometimes curse. Believe me, I am not making light of this post that brought me to tears and will have me pondering the value of conviction and self-assurance as they relate to current events. Thank you for this deep and rich pleasure of a read.

We have starlings and you described the call of their young perfectly. I do not begrudge them, but did scare one away yesterday from pecking at the nest box attached to one of our outside walls. It is not their nest box and they can be up to no good being around it.

I have catching up to do at your blog and shall return. This early morning I stopped by to give you THIS LINK to an article about New Zealand I happened upon moments ago.

pohanginapete said...

Lydia, thank you. Just a few minutes ago I was looking out the kitchen window at a starling perched happily on the back of a sheep which, if not oblivious, was at least unconcerned. Something about that sight always amuses me and, in some way I don't understand, comforts me. This year's brood of starlings are now indistinguishable from their parents; the family groups seem to have broken up and the cycle continues...

I have some catching up on the blog to do also! Been too long between posts, but I've been working on another (with interruptions) for a while now. Totally the wrong approach according to conventional blogging wisdom (if that's not most often an an oxymoron), but I'm grateful to you and the other regular commenters for sticking with me.

Patry Francis said...

I love your questions.

pohanginapete said...

Plenty more where those came from, Patry.

Good to hear from you :^)