24 September 2020

The magpie

I'd been sitting at the kitchen table marking assignments and wearing out my brain, so late in the morning I slung the camera over my shoulder and strolled down the driveway. At the bend I headed towards the letterbox and, as I neared the water trough in the corner of the orchard paddock, a magpie took to the air. It flew awkwardly and I had the impression it was a young bird, although September seems early. I stopped and watched it fly into the big tarata, where it scrabbled briefly before settling on a branch. I took the camera off my shoulder, and as I did so the magpie toppled backwards and hung by its feet from the branch, upside down, wings outstretched. I photographed it, twice, as it hung there.
And then it just dropped. Like the proverbial stone. I heard it hit the ground, and I stood there, waiting for it to get up, but it didn’t. Finally, I walked over and saw it lying on its back, perfectly still. I thought maybe it was playing dead. Maybe this was some kind of defensive behaviour? Magpies are complex and interesting birds, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to have seen this kind of unusual behaviour.
The bird lay on its back, just out of reach beyond the wire fence and I didn’t want to try because that would achieve nothing except further stressing it. I watched it for a minute or so, beginning to feel concerned, and then decided the best thing I could do would be to leave it alone to recover. I’d heard another magpie squawk when the young bird first flew across the drive, but since then I’d neither seen nor heard any adult bird. 
I walked to the letterbox, checked the mail, and on the way back checked the magpie.
It still lay on its back in exactly the same position, and I saw its eye had begun to cloud over. No question now: it was dead.
I have no idea what happened and felt terrible. I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was in some way responsible, even though I knew I wasn’t. But what I felt wasn’t important; what mattered was that a living, complex, wonderful bird had gone from being aware and conscious to being an inanimate collection of feathers and bone and muscle and blood. And a brain that had ceased to function, a mind no longer aware. 

Photos and original text © 2020 Pete McGregor


Relatively Retiring said...

Death is somehow incomprehensible, as I know from personal and professional experience. How can it be that a complex body and even more complex brain can cease to exist, literally in a heart-beat?
How can it be that something or someone who was so totally there has so totally stopped, leaving an empty shell?
Perhaps the magpie squawk you heard as the youngster flew was significant? You'll never know. Perhaps it's more significant that you witnessed and recorded this. You'll never know that either, but be sure that anyone who reads this will be deeply affected by it.

gz said...

You know it happens, but how often are we privileged to see it?

pohanginapete said...

RR — that's exactly it. Our astonishing scientific knowledge of how life functions, how it maintains itself, still falls far short of our ability to comprehend what it is. I suspect that only the most enlightened of us might be able to come close to that comprehension, and maybe comprehending life is less important than acknowledging its significance.

GZ — yes, all the time, and mostly that's all we can do: witness it.

Zhoen said...

Every death I've witnessed has been a powerful honor. The birds know you, which is why you were allowed into this moment, knew you were able to handle it, and respect it.

pohanginapete said...

Thank you, Zhoen. I have a magpie friend who now trusts me enough to come trotting across the paddock to within a few metres — a year ago he and his partner would have flown off from the far side of the paddock if I'd stepped onto the verandah. It's an honour. Now I wonder whether the young bird was theirs.

louise.roche.farmer@gmail.com said...

You observed it and respected it in it's final moments. This was a good thing and done well.

pohanginapete said...

Thank you, Louise :-) At least it was quick and apparently without suffering.