The characters have put on a fine performance. The leading lady played a strong role building the nest and hatching the eggs with barely a break to feed. The leading man maintained his cool persona despite some challenging demands. At first he played sentinel, leading forays into the sky, chasing away any birds of prey that strayed into his domain. When the chicks hatched, he became dedicated dad, busily gathering worms and insects to feed the new family.
The juvenile, the one-year-old that remained from last year’s brood of two, played a supporting role as lookout. The plucky fellow didn’t ever hesitate to fly up to join its parents in defence of the family’s territory.
The fledglings, the babies, were the darlings of the show. The drama revolved around them and they provided the comic relief.
The costumes were in traditional black and white, complemented with shades of grey. The adults looked stunning with their glossy black bodies. The male showed his gender with his white back; the female’s was soft grey. The juvenile wore muted grey on its body and back, still too young to show its sex. The most distinctive of all was the fledglings’ garb, crisp black and white with grey tummies and their back feathers scalloped in grey and buff.
The sound track was compelling, capturing the full repertoire of magpie vocals. There was the musical carolling at dawn, the soft warbling while preening or resting, the harsh screeches of alarm, the high-pitched squeaking of fledglings begging for food and the occasional shrieks and screams as the young ones squabbled and scrapped.
The script followed an age-old storyline but there was plenty of improvisation. This year’s show took off when two fledglings arrived in a tree at the edge of the garden. At first it seemed the babies’ frantic cries would never subside. They opened their beaks wide and flapped their wings wildly in frenzied pleas for attention. The parents rushed back and forth with food but it never seemed enough.
A little later there was an unexpected surprise. A third fledgling joined the troupe but I noticed it had a limp. Although the new one got its fair share of food, the other siblings stuck together and left the newcomer alone.
The script changed pace with heart-warming scenes of the two young magpies playing. They picked up sticks and threw them down, played tug of war, jumped on each other and rolled around. As they got older they chased rabbits off the lawn. Play was a part of every day.
One day there was a heavy downpour of rain. One of the youngsters ran onto the lawn, plunged tummy-first into the wet grass, flapping its wings as if in a birdbath. It jumped up, ran through the rain with wings outstretched then threw itself onto the grass again.
The one-year-old added tension to the family dynamics. At first, it was unimpressed with these uninvited guests. It would take a passing peck at them or jump on one, pinning it to the ground. It was hard to know if there was harm intended or if it was just play.
One afternoon, a youngster was resting on its belly on the lawn. The one-year-old ran over, pounced on it and they rolled around and around. The older bird pecked at the youngster’s head then jumped up, walked away, strolled back and flopped on top of it. The youngster played dead while the other sat beside it like a lion after a kill. The older bird got up, walked away and watched from a distance.
The little one looked lifeless like a rag doll discarded on the ground. But then it moved its head, got up and ran to its older sibling. They ran off together and were rolling around again when their father arrived beside them. He stood over them with a stern look then gave the older one a few quick pecks. It cowered from its father and the little one hid its head beneath its wing.
In the latest scenes, the new brood has settled into their patch. There’s now more humour than drama but there’s also a lingering sadness in the realisation that the third bird to arrive has been missing for too long. We will never know what happened.
The two remaining fledglings now fly strongly, rarely having to abort a landing. They range across the paddocks with the family, drink at the birdbath and spend quiet time preening. They catch their own food but regularly pester their parents for more. They warble and shout and clack their beaks when Willy Wagtail gives them cheek. They squabble a lot and sometimes urgent screams ring out.
This is only the second season that this male and female have taken leading roles in our local production. The main scenes have now unfolded. What happens in the months ahead remains a mystery. When will the one-year-old leave? Will it leave of its own volition or will it be sent away? Which of this year’s brood will be allowed to stay?
I don’t mind being woken early by the sound of magpies carolling. I don’t even mind the squeaks of the youngsters at that peaceful hour of the morning. When I hear them I smile because it doesn’t matter if the sky is blue or grey, I know there’ll be another mesmerising show outside today.
November 30, 2014
Thank you Linda Cutriss for your astutely observed and well told story of days in the life of your magpie family.
Though ornithologists tell us that their early morning carolling is a battle cry warning off would be intruders, it is still the best of wake-up calls.
It always reminds me of Banjo Paterson's poem In Defence of the Bush, which he wrote in response to a poem by Henry Lawson which criticised the harshness and
hardships of the Aussie bush. In part Paterson's poem reads:
Did you hear no sweeter voices in the music of the bush
Than the roar of trams and buses, and the war-whoop of "the push"?
Did the magpies rouse your slumbers with their carol sweet and strange?
Did you hear the silver chiming of the bell-birds on the range?
Paterson concludes with the cutting remark:
You had better stick to Sydney and make merry with the "push",
For the bush will never suit you, you'll never suit the bush.
Bob Middleton, Jeetho West