14 July 2011

What the magpies taught me

When I was a small boy magpies terrorised me. After school the bus dropped me half a mile from home and I walked from there past a handful of houses with well established gardens, on past the old quarry and eventually to the short, gravel road that led past the row of old pines and macrocarpas to our gate. I began to get nervous as I approached those old trees. I hurried past, constantly looking over my shoulder, but the magpies never attacked when I was looking; always the assault came from behind, somehow unexpectedly even though I knew to expect it. A sudden rush of wings, the snap of the beak, the electric rush of adrenaline. They never once made contact. They didn't need to — the surprise, the shock of being attacked did the job and I never hung around long enough to find out what might have happened had I hung around. Those magpies were my enemy.

Now my local magpies seem like friends.

Even when they attacked me as a boy, I understood they were just doing what magpies do; I knew they were defending a nest. The knowledge didn't seem like much of a consolation: it seemed like no consolation at all, and if I could have swatted my assailant from the sky and killed it, I'd have been delighted. Not now, though. I don't know much more about magpies than I did then, at least nothing particularly relevant to their propensity to attack people. What, then, has changed, to enable me to tolerate an occasional magpie attack?

Several things, I think. First, over the years I've learned how to tolerate things I would have raged against as a boy. Sometimes I can even appreciate and value those things — being attacked by a magpie, for example, offers me the opportunity to think about my instinctive reactions and replace them with more reasoned responses. The initial reaction's always likely to be outrage, of course, but instead of holding onto that outrage and wallowing in absurd schemes about how to get even, I can now let the fear and anger go quickly and instead think about magpies and the way they behave and the astonishing skill with which they can fly, the way they can swoop silently to within a few metres before letting the air rush noisily through their wings and snapping that beak within a few centimetres of my head even while it's speeding along the road atop my furiously pedalling body. I can think about the way fears conditioned by millennia of evolution can be overridden by reason, and how understanding can be such a powerful counter to fear — xenophobia, for example, can be overcome best not by trying to suppress other cultures but by immersion in them. The opportunities for constructive thinking arising from a magpie attack are limitless.

Besides, I've grown to enjoy their personalities, even if those include some less than charming aspects. Last summer as I biked back up the road in the late afternoon a magpie swooped at me. After the first attack I knew to expect another, and the magpie didn't understand the significance of the low sun casting my shadow distinctly on the steep bank as I pedalled up the hill. I kept an eye on that shadow and, sure enough, saw the magpie's shadow swooping in behind me. Just before it reached me I flung my arm up into the air; I heard a surprised "Sqrrark!" and the bird veered off and landed in a nearby manuka. Birds, with their solid beaks, have little or no ability to alter their expressions, but this magpie looked at me in a way I swear said: "Okay, truce. Stay away from my nest and I'll keep my beak away from the back of your head." I grinned all the way up the hill, and I've never been attacked since. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, for the last several years I've lived with a family of magpies. The parents, and sometimes a youngster or two, feed regularly in the paddock in front of my little house, and often from the kitchen I enjoy watching them forage in that so-deliberate, calculated way — paused, head tilted, a few steps forward, a moment of peering, then the peck and swallow. Then a few more steps, and the process begins again. They're always wary, but I think they've begun to recognise me; often I can sit out on the verandah in full view while they continue to forage, and when I walk down the drive they'll sometimes watch rather than immediately fly off. They've become individuals, and just as reason can override instinct, so familiarity disarms the desire to harm. Wars are possible because the enemy is an abstraction, not a person.

I just wish the magpies of my early schooldays had understood that.

1.The magpies I speak of are Australian magpies, Cracticus tibicen, which are more closely related to butcherbirds and currawongs than to magpies elsewhere. Introduced to New Zealand in the second half of the nineteenth century, magpies now inhabit most of the country. They're central figures in one of New Zealand's best-known poems: Denis Glover's The Magpies.

1.  They like to sit in the silver birch behind the house, too.
2. One of my friends in the paddock in front of the house.

Photos and original text © 2011 Pete McGregor


Lydia said...

A treat: new post by Pete to read at 2:00 a.m. before getting some sleep. Magical and deep, lyrical and logical. As usual, thoughts I wish the whole world could read. An opportunity to learn from the stories of his life. An exotic tale because it comes from what he knows well and I do not. Two new images to walk into with my imagination, and to welcome into tonight's dreams.
Thank you, Pete.

Relatively Retiring said...

A chillingly Daphne du Maurier start turns into a great tale of compassion and understanding.

Early this morning I was dive-bombed and shouted at by wrens (WRENS!), who had obviously just launched their tiny family in my garden.
It's not my garden. It's their flightpath and training ground, their larder and campsite.
Then I had to stop weeding the grasses by the pond as a dragonfly was about to emerge. It's not my pond, it's their breeding ground.
I must constantly watch my step and not infringe the rights of others.

Zhoen said...

Too bad you couldn't have gotten the drop on one of them when you were small.

I remember being attacked by a pair of birds at a rest-stop, and my aunt explained that it was because they were afraid of me. This made me feel much better.

I also got menaced by a goose on the Fenway, and I was prepared to smack him with one of the two heavy bags I was carrying. Also walked far around him, which seemed to satisfy his territorial aggression. Eventually.

Michael said...

My uncle -- evil sort of man -- used to trap magpies and kill them. Like rats. He had a necklace of their feet.

I appreciate your thoughts on how our cerebral cortex can modify our mid-brain survival instincts.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

ok so firstly the photo of the tree is fantastic

and i love the message of acceptance here - also of acceptance of the change with yourself over the years.

Yesterday i lost my temper, again, because someone couldnt explain something in a way that i could understand - mostly i was angry with myself. I should definately learn to be acceptant of my own failures

Anonymous said...

'Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle' I had never read this poem before! Made me smile... I would like to hear this verse in a yodel!

Magpies and Corvids have always fascinated me. Magpies can recognize themselves in the mirror! (http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/08/19/us-magpies-mirror-idUSLF67694120080819)

How do they see us? It would not surprise me at all if that family of magpies can recognize your face.

Beautiful prose and parallels as always Pete.

"In the practice of tolerance, one's enemy is the best teacher." His Holiness the Dalai lama


Ruahines said...

Kia ora Pete,
Like Maureen I was reminded of Denis Glovers poem :) - I recall one post Ruahine trip John and I waiting at Mokai Station for Tara to arrive and a magpie took great exception to the place we had chose. He would watch us perched from a fence post until angered enough to launch his missle like assaults just above our heads.You describe the air rush very well. Hope you are staying warm.

pohanginapete said...

Lydia, thanks for the kind words and encouragement :^)

RR — wrens! Fascinating how tiny things can sometimes be so feisty. I was once attacked by New Zealand's smallest bird, the rifleman (titipounamu).

Zhoen, my earliest memories include the risk of being attacked by a goose. Given he was almost the same size as I was at that stage, I think my apprehension was justified.

Michael, I have difficulty understanding that impulse to use another animal's body parts as adornments. Sadly, I guess that inclination's something else that sets us apart from other animals.

Hungry pixie, thanks :^) I should point out I'm not always as accepting as I'd like to be. A couple of times in India the hassling finally got to me; however, the really important lesson I learned was that on those occasions I felt much worse afterwards. In contrast, I saw some other travellers deal with similar situations in truly inspirational ways, like laughing and shrugging it off. Afterwards, I thought how much better I'd have felt if I'd managed to do the same, and I try to remind myself of the lesson when tempted to lose it. Turning a failure into a lesson often retrieves something worthwhile. I think, too, that berating myself for failing only makes it worse. We're all only human; therefore we're fallible.

Gracias,Maureen :^) Apparently, crows recognise faces, not just a person's general appearance — moreover, they neither forget nor forgive serious transgressions.

Robb, I'm managing ok, and when the cold bites too hard, I try to consider it training for Patagonia ;^)

Anne said...

Lots to think about here. And, as Lydia says, a post from Pete is a treat. I'm sure those magpies in your paddock recognize you as familiar and harmless, and perhaps, because of that and the one you out-maneuvered on the road, you have a reputation in the magpie world as a man to let pass without aggression.

Wonderful pictures, as always.

pohanginapete said...

Anne, thank you :^) Let's trust that reputation spreads beyond the magpie world, particularly to the concrete jungles of the South American cities I'll be visiting during the remainder of the year.

Donald said...

Hi Pete

Some good lessons in your well crafted story thanks.

They used to attack me to in my biking to school days. I never thought of the shadow trick!

I do recall finding an injured magpie once and in a darkened garage nurtured him back to flying. While grounded he was very good company - they're smart alright, just as you noted.

For a few months he'd come back with a mate, and I read into this a sense of appreciation, but maybe me for what he taught me!



pohanginapete said...

Hi Donald — I'm sure anyone who's raised one knows they're smart. A long time ago my uncle raised one (I've forgotten how he came by it), and it learned to whistle tunes; not sure that's a sign of intelligence, but given the difficulty I'm having picking up Spanish, anything that can learn a different language has my admiration ;^)

Bob McKerrow said...

Ah ! What a fascinating aprt of the world Pete, and to see hummingbirds will be an amazing experience. Enjoy the mountains of Equador, and the flora and fauna. Safe travels, Bob

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Bob!