It has taken a while for me to make my peace with magpies. For a long time, as a child, youth, and young adult, they were a creature I profoundly disliked. The reason for this was pretty simple: a magpie killed my tortoise, my only childhood pet, named Werner. So I came to regard magpies as Werner’s cruel, marauding murderers, and even as I grew up, and began to take an interest in birds and the natural world, these negative associations proved somewhat difficult to dislodge.
But I gradually grew to appreciate magpies. At least part of this appreciation arose out of a broad philosophic change I went through a few years ago, when I began to really question the human tendency toward making, expressing, and acting upon value judgments. I could see this tendency in myself very clearly when thinking about how I reacted to certain kinds of weather, or particular times of year (could a grey February day really be said to be objectively “depressing”?) or when considering a particular bird (how could it possibly be appropriate to regard a magpie as cruel or evil in human terms?). You might say that understanding my own subjective reaction to magpies was an important step in beginning to detach myself from my own tendency towards making value judgments in areas of life much more significant than birds: a process which has allowed me to regard those with whose behaviour or political positions I strongly disagree with much more empathy, as well as proving very useful in managing my personal mental health (I’ve found that learning to regard the negative feelings or value judgments humans tend to attach to all kinds of things as provisional, transitory and entirely subjective is a good starting point when countering depression – something I’ve written about much more thoroughly in Wheesht).
The other reason I found myself able to appreciate magpies is because I began to learn more about birds in general. I became much more interested in birdy habits and behaviour, I read lots of books about birds, and I enjoyed observing and listening to the different birds around me. Because I’d developed a particular interest in my local ravens, I went through quite an extensive corvid reading phase, and, as a result of this, the smartness and resourcefulness of magpies became something at which I grew to marvel. Like other birds, then, I began to appreciate the difference of magpies – their radical alterity from me as a human – and to find that difference both wonderful and weirdly comforting.
The comfort of regarding birds through the lens of their own this-ness – their radical alterity rather than the distorting lens of human sentiment – is something Richard Smyth captures brilliantly in An Indifference of Birds , a birdy book which resonated very powerfully with me. And yet, in the past couple of weeks, I’ve wondered if my magpie appreciation might be about to be tested when I’ve found myself embroiled in the ordinary birdy drama of their world.
Housemartins nest beneath our eaves. Their arrival heralds spring, and Tom and I love to watch them building their beautiful nests, flitting about and chit-chattering above our heads when the weather grows warm enough for us to sit outside. We watch the housemartin pairs competing and mating, sitting on their eggs, feeding and schooling their young. But we aren’t the only watchers. By early June, the neighbourhood cats have begun to gather beneath the nests, gazing hopefully upwards, waiting for a falling fledgling, and our local magpies also regard the nesting housemartins as opportunities.
At this time of year, I tend to keep an eye on the size and aptitude of the fledglings, as well as the behaviour of the cats and magpies. About a week ago, the brood beneath our bedroom window were looking about ready to fledge, and magpies began to attack the nest. In the early hours of every morning, I found myself in the odd position of stalwart housemartin nest protector, sleeping lightly, with one ear open for a signature magpie cackle or housemartin distress call, poised to stick my head out of the velux window, and interrupt an attack. The magpies really do not like the way my head suddenly and loudly intrudes out of the sloping roof upon their birdy world and I found that simply presenting them with the sight of my emerging head served as an effective deterrent to their predatory activities. But only temporarily so. For, the day after I’d disturbed a particularly determined magpie nest attack, I got up early, went downstairs to make a cup of tea and knit, and, by the time Tom woke up a few hours later, the housemartin nest had been destroyed.
One can’t but feel for the wee housemartins under such circumstances, and I was very heartened later that day when I spotted a single fledgling perching uncertainly on the roof near where the nest had been. So at least one of the brood survived.
I examined my feelings very carefully after this incident and was interested to find that, while my strong desire to prevent the predation of the nest had cost me several nights of disturbed sleep, and while I certainly wanted to protect the fledglings, I did not regard the magpies with the slightest rancour or dislike. For they were just doing what magpies do.
And so I realised that I’d made my peace with magpies. And I’ve found myself often thinking of late about how, in their complete exteriority to the world of human sentiment, as well as the way that they reveal the possibilities of seeing things from several perspectives simultaneously, birds have a lot teach us.
(A stonechat, and not a magpie)
Milarrochy Tweed delivery permitting, I’ll be back here on Friday to show you a new design, in our Ardnamurchan shade. And if you are interested in reading Richard Smyth’s highly-recommended An Indifference of Birds, we have a few copies remaining in the shop.