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