Do magpies grieve?

One of my first Australian memories is waking up in a pup tent at Katoomba on a freezing cold morning to the sound of magpies carolling. It was utterly gorgeous and a clear sign that, Toto, this sure ain’t Kansas. Or, in my case, Cumbria.

Australia is believed to be the home of the songbird, something that would have surprised the early British colonists, many of whom found Australia’s birdsong raucous or screeching or even – in the case of the satin bowerbird – “like the sound of someone dry-retching”.* But surely no one could ever not like magpies?

I was in Richardson Park with Jambo recently, the Tuesday morning after a huge storm. I’d been avoiding the edges of the park for a few weeks as a magpie pair had a nest in the figs and had taken up the habit of swooping; a couple of close calls (a loud beak clack next to my ear) and I decided that discretion was the better part of valour. But swooping season was over and so I was strolling under the gangly arms of the fig trees again.

Something moved in the grass. It was a young magpie, almost fully fledged. Another week and it would probably have been independent. Perhaps it had outgrown its nest and this had made it vulnerable to a sudden gust in the storm. I said, “Hello!” and it squawked back at me. I knew that mum must be around somewhere but couldn’t see her. Then …

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Whallop!

She must have been watching me, waiting for the right moment to come boring in from behind. Such a powerful blow, it was like a punch to the back of the head. Thankfully I was wearing a hat and so I got away with just a nasty scratch.

I thought, this little fella’s going to be all right with a mum like that to care for him.

Is there something more than pure instinct at work here? Was it just DNA that made mother magpie hurl herself at full speed at this gigantic lumbering creature threatening her offspring? Is it possible that there’s some deeper feeling at work, or am I just being romantic and naive?

Sadly, I was wrong about mum’s ability to look after junior. Two days later I came across him, cold, and with no mum or dad to guard him.

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I wonder if his parents simply flew off to start a new nest somewhere else with nary a thought. Or did they feel something – a pang a sadness or regret – when junior lay down and didn’t get up again. I don’t mean a fully formed humanoid wailing and gnashing of teeth but just something, some feeling.

I know that I did.

*Tim Low explains it all very well in Where Song Began.

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