There’s no denying that a magpie is a handsome bird. The trick to keeping that white shirt so pristine is a mystery that would be worth millions, if it could be translated to our laundry industry. Imagine the sales pitch, ‘Chemical-free cleaning for a happy environment.’ How welcome would that be to soap manufacturers, I wonder?
As for that petrol-like gleam of blue on those black wings, hood and tail, it out-sheens any silk I’ve seen. Up close, the birds have glamour. Usually, around here, they’re seen from a distance, as a flash of monochrome, flitting out of the way of cars. They are, after all, fine refuse collectors, and despite their handsome dinner-jackets, they relish road-kill.
This spring a pair of magpies have moved into a tree across the road. They’ve constructed their twiggy des-res at the apex of the thin branches at the crown, it looks precarious, I get vertigo just thinking about sitting up there by the hour, but the design is clearly first rate. Despite strong gusting winds during the last month, the nest remains firmly lodged, and Mrs Magpie seems to be brooding her eggs.
Mr Magpie flits back and forth, bringing home the groceries. It’s a lot of work, searching out food for a growing family, which our Magpie couple must have factored in when they decided on this spot. It is, after all, a prime location with several handy garden food stores. He’s taken control of my bird-feeders, especially the inverted terracotta fat-feeder designed to favour acrobatic blue-tits.
Lacking the agility for swinging upside-down to feed, Mr Magpie paces along branches, assessing the problem from all right-way-up angles. That’s when I have a chance to observe without being observed, to admire his elegance. Any other time he keeps one eye always on the house, ready to depart at the twitch of a shadow, but this prize keeps his focus. He can reach the edge of the pot from a parallel branch, if only his beak would bend.
He’s not dainty, or delicate. He drops onto the grass to eye the mush of fat and seed from below. How solid he looks, as if he’s a regular at the gym. There’s no denying his qualities as a pin-up, but does that image tell the whole story? I can feel the twitch of a smile, watching him pace, peering first this way, then that. When he dives up, beak reaching, stabbing into the pot, gulping down fragments of plunder, I’m tempted to laugh and cheer. He tries so hard to hover there, the effort is at odds with his usual economy of movement.
This fellow’s not sunny, or funny though. See how the other birds hurry out of his way? They’re far from charmed by the sophisticated demeanour. They know that Mr & Mrs Magpie are not ideal neighbours, that with their presence the garden has transformed from a gentle landscape of domestic intrigues into one laced with menace.