A couple of weeks before Christmas my tame magpie Chubby came for her morning feed and couldn’t quite fly onto the shed roof where the birds are fed. She’s a bird who has been visiting me for perhaps 8 or 10 years, bringing her babies and her mates, some of whom became part of my family, some never seen again.
Two years ago she developed a hideous growth on the edge of her beak, in front of her eye. It prevented her from feeding properly, as she was unable to focus on the ground accurately, and her pecking for insects was seriously restricted. I could hand-feed her, so I became her main source of food for a few months. She quickly learnt to line her head up on the side, look at the food with only one eye, and then scoop her beak sideways to pick it up, rather than going directly and flicking it to the back of her mouth with her tongue. In fact I saw her pick up meat with her claw and take it to her beak, something I haven’t observed in other magpies. Sadly though, as the growth increased her tongue actually began to dry up because her beak was always open. With a heavy heart I began to train her to go into a long chickenwire tunnel for food, so that I could trap her and take her to the vet to be euthanased.
Coincidentally I began emailing with Prof Gaby Kovacs, Australia’s magpie expert, who identified the growth as avian pox, itself harmless but possibly fatal if it interfered with the bird’s normal functions. She did tell me that these growths spontaneously fall off sometimes – and that’s exactly what happened. One morning Chubby arrived with a clean face and I gladly stopped trying to persuade her to go into the Tunnel of Death.
A baby or two later, and a Boyfriend who also became quite tame, we were a happy family. Chubby seemed to be the dominant female bird in the group, and although there were occasional territorial arguments, they were no worse than the usual magpie warfare.
The she turned up, unable to fly properly. She tottered aound on the ground, went forlornly into my vegetable patch in the early morning warming sun, and sat with her feathers fluffed out and her head low. I decided to chase her with a net on a stick, and again planned to take her to be euthanased. However, when I approached her, she flew quite straight and fast into the pine trees.
I have never seen her again.
Boyfriend then found himself in a full-scale war with the other group whose territory intersected across our front lawn. For two days there was screaming and cawing, fighting and slashing, swooping and tussling. Boyfriend came for breakfast with gashes across the top of his head and his wing feathers broken and bloody.
I have never seen him again either.
For more than a decade I have engaged with these two and their predecessors, wonderful creatures all, on an intimate and privileged basis. They would fly in from several paddocks away as soon as I opened the back door in the morning, and feed from my hand. Part of my daily ritual was the preparation of their food, calling them, chatting to them as they ate, photographing and videoing them, talking about them and generally basking in their friendship.
Now they’re gone. The magpies in the paddock are charming and wonderful – but they don’t acknowledge me in any way at all.
I have lost family members and I am sad.