Photos by Pauline Wilkinson
WE HAVE been adopted by a family of magpies. An adult male started visiting in late winter two years ago, and occasionally we’d toss a bit of extra something his way; a few crumbs, a bit of cheese, a worm-sized bit of mince before it disappeared into the meatball mix. So of course he started appearing more often.
Arm’s length, so as to pluck his treat directly, but delicately, from our fingers.
We also noticed that he took advantage of the insect population thriving among the potted plants near the doorway, the earwigs that fell out of the channels of the screen door when opened or closed, and the worms and grubs available under the shrubs in the garden. And sometimes he would let us know he was eating lots of insects he’d gathered himself, by regurgitating a pellet of insect shell and assorted fibrous fragments, before accepting our offering. Perhaps not the best table manners but it eased our concern that he may become dependent, even though we didn’t give him food every time he appeared.
Far from being resentful at our unreliability he kept coming, and in spring he came accompanied. We heard the unmistakable “eeh eeh eeh” of magpie offspring, looked, and there they were. Three of them. We were delighted. “Our” Mr Magpie felt safe bringing the kids to meet us, which melted our hearts, but we guessed that he also hoped we’d help feed them. With three on board, he and their mother had their job cut out keeping the meals coming. We needed to lift our game.
Pauline researched appropriate supplementary feeding for magpies. Wombaroo Insectivore Rearing Mix became a standard item on the shopping list, to be mixed with meat, egg, or just water. It smelled a lot like blood and bone, which it probably is, but apparently provides an acceptable substitute for the minerals normally found in insects, grubs and the other creatures composing the birds’ natural diet.
We were glad we did. We still didn’t let the birds imagine they could stop looking for their own food, but we felt better knowing that whenever we offered food it was appropriate for them. Also, we saw that Mr was working so hard he had lost most of the feathers off the back of his neck. We worried he may have got damaged in territorial battles, or been infested with mites, but as the juveniles grew and started finding some of their own food his feathers grew back.
And oh, how we enjoyed their visits. The youngsters’ playtime antics were delightful, we engaged in pointless but pleasurable speculation about their behavioural habits, and we laughed out loud at their gawky efforts to perch on unsuitably thin twigs, or the wire fence.
One of their games involved grabbing a clump of weed root we’d dropped when gardening, tossing it around in front of a sibling till the sibling grabbed the clump and tossed it somewhere else. Or ran away with it, the first sibling in hot pursuit. Another was “pull the tag off the sapling”, much to Pauline’s annoyance: her mini arboretum risked losing value if we couldn’t identify all the species. And why would they want to do that? Similarly perplexing, one sibling seemed fixated on tugging at tree guards … an avian plastic-free crusader perhaps.
Same last spring, two young this time. Wrestling games, turning found objects into toys, warbling practice, and learning the art of extractive foraging. And like any siblings, with different personalities; one bolder, precocious in adopting territorial behaviour, the other more reserved, more content with solitary pursuits.
This year, Mrs has turned up too. Mr must have finally convinced her we are no threat and that the tucker is tasty. She’s very shy and skitters away if we so much as stand up from the kitchen table while she’s in the yard, but she’s warming up. As long as we don’t move she’ll come right up to the doorway to pick up a morsel, when at first she would stay partially concealed among the shrubs ten metres away and only dash in to collect when we left the room.
In the last couple of weeks both of them have been coming for bits and carrying most of them away to the canopy of a tall tree across the paddock, so we know they’ve hatched this year’s crew.
We can’t wait to meet them.