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