24 December 2017

Bird skull stories

Magpie skull
‘Tell me a story’, you say, so I think of the first thing that comes to mind and wonder how I can turn it into a story. First, though, you must tell me whether you want a true story or something made up, with fabulous characters that might not even exist, that not even a David Attenborough documentary could show you — creatures even more astonishing than the mantis shrimp or Vampyroteuthis infernalis, the vampire squid from hell — creatures that might live in Moominvalley with strange names from Tove Jansson’s imagination (although some real creatures have wonderful enough names, like the shortarse feelerfish, zombie worms, and bristlemouth fish, which are more numerous than any other animal with a backbone).

To return to your request for a story, though, let me start by telling you what happened as I carried the rubbish down the long driveway in the warm, wild nor’ west wind one morning not long ago. This actually happened; we can decide later whether to diverge from what happened to what might have happened. But now I see you’re impatient to hear the story, just like I was when I was your age. All right, then.

So, I’d carried the rubbish bag out to the gate, and as I took it the last twenty-five metres to drop it next to the neighbour’s bag, I noticed something old and dead lying in the weeds next to the letterboxes. Magpie, I thought, and on the way back I stopped to look more closely.

The remains of the bird had decayed to nothing more than pale bones and feathers, the quills still stuck in desiccated skin. The form of the body had gone; everything looked a little mixed-up except for a dry wing that had retained most of its shape. But, sitting on the almost-mummified remains, was the magpie’s skull.

Wind and rain and sun and time and insects had cleaned the skull almost perfectly, stripped it of nearly every trace of dried flesh and skin. The lower part of the beak had gone, but the upper part remained, still partly covered with its tough sheath, although even that had dried hard and begun to flake off. I looked at the skull with its beautiful sad lines and curves and the huge hollows where its eyes had once looked out on the world, and I wondered many things. How had it died; what had killed it; how did it come to end its short life? (Magpies don’t live long compared to us.) How had it ended up in those roadside weeds? Most probably, it had been a young bird struck by a car and someone or something had carried it or just tossed it off the road. I hoped it hadn’t been injured and had flapped and dragged itself there to die, but the way of things isn’t always as kind as we wish. Let’s not think about that too much, though, because I see that might upset you. (Good — I’m glad you find the pain of animals difficult.)

I picked up the skull. As I said, it was clean and old, so I wasn’t worried about getting my fingers covered in bacteria and objectionable smells and other pestilence. The skull was so light I could hardly feel it. I guess you could say it felt as light as a feather. (Later, I weighed it and found it weighed just two-and-a-half grams: about as much as a teaspoon of tea leaves. Now you know how much a bird’s skull weighs when the bird that lived there has gone. Isn’t that something?)

I didn’t know why I picked up the skull and took it back to the house and set it down on a sheet of white paper. Maybe I didn’t want to leave it there to get trodden on or blown into the oozing ditch or smashed to bits by a weedeater when someone decided to tidy around the letterboxes. Maybe I wanted to keep something beautiful. Maybe you have some ideas?

Ah, so you think maybe it was just a cool thing? You might be right, and you’ve taught me something, too: I thought kids stopped saying ‘cool’ years ago when saying ‘cool’ became uncool. So kids still use it? Thank you.

Whatever the reason, I did pick it up and take it back with me, and here’s where we need to decide what to do with the story. Shall we stick with the truth, or shall we make something up?

‘Both’, you say? There’s a thought, and I have to hand it to you — you’ve trapped me cleverly into telling you two stories, not just one. But maybe you’re right to do that, because everything has more than one story. Sometimes I think anything has as many stories as you can imagine, and as many true stories, too, if only you had a way of discovering them.

1. Possibly part 1 of a series
1 & 2. Magpie skull, Pohangina Valley, December 2017

Photos and original text © 2017 Pete McGregor