A Mischief Of Magpies

If the Sun were the size of a beach ball then Jupiter would be the size of a golf ball and a Mischief of Magpies would be as small as a pea.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

magpies is it?

Let's face it, the collective term 'a mischief of magpies' may trip easily off the tongue but it's a bit like talking about a 'petulance of piranhas' or 'a naughtiness of Nazis'. Make no mistake, magpies are among the meanest birds on the planet; they are total tyrants - unfeeling, mercenary, piratical bullies with a hideous rasping call that sounds like a recording of one of these old football rattles cranked up to full volume on a trashy transistor radio. Yes, at first glance they look quite swashbuckling in their fancy black and white pirate gear with their long shiny tails and swaggering walk, but they are not. They are evil personified. Intelligent, yes, but evil to the core. There is only one bird that can scare a magpie shitless and that's a crow - and for that reason alone I quite like crows. I believe a raven would see off a magpie too, but ravens and magpies rarely, if ever, meet. And I suppose an eagle or a falcon or a buzzard, and probably a swan or a goose, would put them in their place, but these are noble birds and I doubt if any of them would stoop so low as to have any truck with magpies. However, just about every other bird lives in terror of magpies, because magpies are the most ruthless and efficient nest-robbers on the face of the earth.

I live in the leafy suburbs of Edinburgh, and when we moved here over ten years ago there was scarcely a magpie to be seen. A few pairs lived in the trees along a nearby disused railway track - now a cycle path - but they rarely ventured beyond its confines. Then they gradually began to appear in the gardens around where we live, arriving in raiding parties as soon as the songbirds had laid their first clutch of eggs in spring. The magpies would watch beady-eyed from vantage points like tv aerials on the top of the nearby tenement blocks, studying the lie of the land, and noting where the birds were nesting, then they would come screaming in and all hell would break loose. They would arrive, cackling and shrieking like a bunch of maenads on mescalin, and destroy the nests, wolfing down eggs or nestlings in the blink of an eye before moving on to the next garden. Of course the parent birds would try to put up some kind of resistance, but it was futile in the face of such an onslaught. Often one magpie would distract them while another would raid the nest. Sometimes they arrived in gangs of four or five, probably young adolescents not yet of breeding age, with nothing better to do with themselves in the absence of youth clubs and similar facilities down the cycle path. If they could find Burberry caps to fit I'm certain they would wear them.

So the other birds are gradually disappearing from our neighbourhood - blackbirds, robins, swifts, starlings, song thrushes, blue tits, great tits, coal tits, chaffinches, bullfinches, wood pigeons, wrens ... loads of lovely birds that gladdened the eye and sang their hearts out as dawn broke every summer morning. Now we have silence. With very few exceptions they've gone, and I don't blame them. The didn't stand a chance. There are magpies everywhere now. A couple of years ago I watched the blackbirds build no less than five different nests in our back garden. The magpies got every one of them. The poor bloody blackbirds were exhausted by the end of the year. The only birds that survive are the blue tits, and that's only because they nest deep in a crevice in the wall of the tenement opposite. The entrance is too small for the magpies to get into. Not so the starlings which had a similar nesting arrangement but haven't been seen since the year I watched a magpie clinging doggedly to the stone face of the building and ripping the nest and fledgling starlings out with its bare beak.

I mean, the cats are a big enough threat to the birds around here, but they've got nothing on magpies when it comes to pure unbridled bloodlust. Even big aggressive cats don't scare magpies. I know, because this summer a pair of mapies actually built a nest in the top of the very tall conifer in the corner of our garden and woe betide any cat that came anywhere near that tree. The parent birds came down and tormented the poor creatures at close range - actually pecking their tails at times - till they were forced to flee. I managed to dislodge the first magpie nest with a contraption cobbled together from 3 clothes poles, but they rebuilt it within days and went on to raise a brood. Naturally, this lowered the tone of the garden considerably and even the last remaining pair of blackbirds moved away.

Over the past few years the numbers of these monstrous birds have risen rapidly and they all have their own territories. Everwhere you look you see them, strutting along walls, squawking angrily from the chimney tops (are magpies never contented with their lot?), or patrolling the skies. Outwith the breeding season they congregate in vast numbers along the cycle path. I've counted over 30 of them in a single tree at twilight. And Edinburgh isn't the only place that's suffering. Just about every city is being over-run by them. If you phone up the RSPB and ask what to do about magpies killing songbirds they go all coy, and claim that magpies don't really decimate songbird numbers at all. That something else is responsible. Global bloody warming, probably. Bullshit. The RSPB is either totally blind or working to some hidden agenda.

They will tell you, however, that you can legally kill magpies if they're being mischievous by getting a Larsen Trap, and I once read about a little old lady in Glasgow who was so fed up seeing her garden birds winding up as horses doofers or omelettes for magpies that she started trapping and killing them herself. Within a couple of years she had personally massacred well over a hundred of them and before long she had a vigilante network of like-minded old biddies stretching right across the posher parts of Glasgow. Larsen traps were selling like Larsson strips in the days of Henrik's reign at Celtic, but the trap requires a live decoy magpie, and how the little old lady procured her first one I've no idea. However, in the immortal words of George Galloway, I salute her indefatigabilabulidility.

OK, I promised Clairwil I was going to write about jackdaws, but as you see I got sidetracked. I'll discuss them next time. Unlike magpies, jackdaws are my very favourite member of the crow family, and I'll tell you why. Bet you can't wait.


At 8:43 pm, Anonymous Clairwil said...

I knew magpies were the bad boys of the bird world, but I hadn't realised just how bad they were. I must say I do enjoy seeing a magpie tormenting a cat though. It's such a reversal of the natural order on a par with seeing a cat chase a dog or a fox.

A few week back one of my mother's cats raced through the house looking most indignant, I followed him outside only to see him trying to confont a couple of magpies who were tucking into the leftovers in his 'outside' dish. Needless to say he retreated, a puzzled and frightend cat. They didn't peck his tail though, if they had I'd still be laughing now.


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