Songbird trills

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The magpie choir had definitely gone off since we’d been away. They were back to squawking three discordant notes over and over again. Frankly, I was disappointed. Just because I’d been out of town for three days they’d given up practicing.

On top of that, it looked like our quartet was down to three. One of the birds, a scruffy oversized adolescent, appeared to have fled the nest and gone flatting.

Clearly, we were going to have to start all over again. I carried my paper cup of latte down the front path, sat on the top step and whistled the first line of “Pop Goes the Weasel”. The reason we’d been making progress with that tune was, I thought, partly because it’s a refined version of a magpie warble. Across the street, the paper bark tree fell silent. It was a sure sign they were listening.

My husband and family hadn’t bothered hiding the fact they thought I’d gone mad. A look of sorrowful tolerance flashed across their faces when I told I’d formed a choir with the neighbourhood magpies.

Like the rest of the world, they were underestimating the intelligence of these birds. I once met a magpie who could hold a pencil in her claw and scratch drawings on paper. If I hadn’t witnessed the phenomenon, I’d never have believed it possible. She’d been found as a chick with a broken wing and taken to a vet with remarkable affinity for animals. He beamed with pride as his feathered protégé completed her latest scrawl. When it was finished, he attached it to his fridge door to join other examples of avian artwork.

A flurry of black and white swept down from the paper bark and landed with the grace of a Concorde on the nature strip. The magpie put his head to one side, strutted toward me and fixed me with a fierce brown eye.

“Those birds remember people,” a voice said. The man was standing on our driveway and clutching a bike helmet. “They never attack me when I’m cycling around here. But the moment I ride into different magpie territory I get swooped.”

As he rode off, a second magpie came in for a landing and pecked at the grass. When I launched into another round of Pop Goes the Weasel, the magpies seemed unimpressed. I began to wonder if they were different birds from the ones I’d been singing with a week earlier. Maybe my family was right and I was going loopy.

Embarrassed, I drained my coffee and hurried back inside. After a couple of hours at the computer, I was overcome by the inevitable need for a second takeaway. On my way to the café, a workman emerged from a building site on the corner.

“You’re doing a great job with those magpies,” he boomed. “Are you feeding them?”

I shook my head.

“I thought you must be. They wait outside your house every morning,” he said. “And I hear them singing Pop Goes the Weasel all day.”


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