Simon Patton 著
Just from the way they look, Australian magpies look pretty much the same as the birds that go by the same name in Hong Kong, one half of their feathers black and one half white. This black and white pattern makes a stark contrast and, at the same time, it hints at its rather contradictory nature! Actually, magpies really are a contradiction.
The white would seem to symbolize the magpie’s beautiful side. Last year I bought a book entitled Chinese Festivals in Hong Kong. In it, there are quite a number of passages that really moved me, but to me the most unforgettable one of all describes deals with the Festival of the Seven Sisters which commemorates the Weaving Girl and the Cowherd: “There they remain to this day, the Cowherd on side of the Milky Way and the Weaving Girl on the other, within sight of one another yet quite unable to communicate except once a year, on the Double Seventh. On that day all the magpies in the world fly up to Heaven and make a bridge with their wings for the Weaving Girl to cross over to visit her husband.” This is how true love should be, I think ― with the wonderful feeling of walking across the wings of millions of magpies!
Hong Kong magpies make a rather raucous sound that is not very pleasant to listen to. But rather surprisingly Australian magpies are endowed by nature with an extraordinarily beautiful voice. Generally speaking, those birds with pleasant singing voices have a melody that is particularly attractive. However, the magpies in Australia are completely different: they don’t sing, they make a kind of intoxicating gargling sound! Ordinary melodies are song note by note, a sequence of single sounds organized into a unit; but as soon as the magpies of this place open their beaks they suddenly give rise to a musical stream of sound like a whirlpool, in which it is hard to distinguish individual notes. Perhaps using the term “gargling” to describe the sound this bird makes may give rise to misunderstandings: to be more precise, that sound is the gargling of angels in Heaven! Usually I get up at five in the morning at a time when the world is still pitch-black and you can’t see anything, but in that utter darkness you can often hear the wake-up song that the magpies have prepared for dawn, singing from the darkest depths of the night.
In actual fact, Australian magpies know how to make a number of different calls. Although the one that imitates a sound like gargling is the most conspicuous one, there are also three or four others that would make you think they were made by a few completely different birds. From the time I first moved to the countryside, I slowly began to learn which bird made which sound and, after a while, I could match the call to the bird fairly accurately, but there were still some calls that were “without an owner” and that I had no way of identifying. Nevertheless, I finally came to realize that all those ownerless sounds belonged to the magpies: rather miraculously, in different circumstances, and under different conditions, they sung different songs! Even young magpies had a special cry of their own, and when you heard that you knew at once that a new magpie had appeared in the nearby forests!
They also have a few other special forms of behaviour. First of all, magpies seem to like walking on the ground in search of things to eat. In comparison to crows, their manner of walking is especially assured and they don’t look in the least bit awkward. Sometimes when I am outdoors looking at magpies, I get the feeling that these birds are too lazy to fly ― over short distances they prefer to walk on their two black legs nearly every time, unless something threatens them. They seldom make the choice of flight.
Secondly, they really like to play, especially towards the end of the day, when small flocks of magpies fly up into the sky like arrows. When they reach the heights, they turn around and, with practised skill, ride a certain current of air back to the ground without a single flap of their wings. How easy and elegantly poised they look! Then, they immediately fly back up into the air again, and play the game all over again. I can’t help thinking that they look like a group of black and white paragliders.
Apart from their positive, bright aspect symbolized by white, they also have a sinister side, symbolized by the black. In Spring, when they are laying eggs and bringing up their young, Australian magpies frequently attack people walking in the vicinity in order to safeguard the fledglings, pecking the heads of any “invaders” with their very sharp beaks. I’ve never suffered any violence from the magpies that live in the area near my house, but when I bike ride to the Little Red Apple (the Little Red Apple is the only store in the area, and it is where I can do some shopping), I have been attacked two or three times by “air-raiding” magpies. Each time, the attack is very sudden and gives me no time to make any preparations for self-defence. Fortunately, it is law in Australia that everyone has to wear a helmet when riding a bike, so even though I have been harassed by magpies, the helmet on my head has always protected me from any injury!
Actually, magpies here in Australia are pretty formidable. They are very sensitive to any changes in the surrounding environment. I’m not sure why but in Spring and Summer all kinds of birds here crash into the windows here from time to time. In most cases, they don’t hurt themselves and fly off at once in another direction just as if nothing had happened. Every now and then, however, perhaps because it is flying too fast, a bird will fall to the ground as soon as it hits the glass and sits there in surprise unable to understand what has happened to it, staying there stunned for a long time before recovering and flying off.
I remember on one occasion I was working away inside when I suddenly heard the thud of a bird hitting a window with all its force. I went over to the door as quickly as I could and went out to see what was going on: I discovered a small green bird I had never seen before lying on the ground looking to be in a very bad way, perhaps even dead already. After a long wait, however, this unidentified bird began to regain consciousness. I waited another quarter of an hour; by then, the bird seemed more or less normal again, but it was still unable to fly. I decided then to go back inside and let it flap its wings and try to fly when it was ready but, to my complete surprise, as soon as I had shut the door, I heard the whoosh of a bird’s wings and, looking out through the window, I saw a magpie flying away from where that green bird had been sitting. I was astonished. Could the magpie have sensed that there was an injured bird in the vicinity? I immediately went outside again to see if the stunned bird was still there. As soon as I looked over to the place, I could see that there was no life in it at all. When I saw the wound on its body, I knew that it had been pecked to death by the magpie and I couldn’t help feeling a cold shudder pass through me.
There’s no point denying it: magpies are both white and black and we have no way of separating these two contradictory aspects. Just recently, my partner was driving along when she saw a magpie caught in barbed wire. She hesitated, because she was well aware of the black and white in a magpie’s nature. Then she stopped the car, took out a blanket from the boot of the car, and walked over to that part of the fence. As it turned out, one of the magpie’s wings was stuck fast between two strands of wire, but when she covered the magpie’s head with the blanket she was able to separate the two strands of barbed wire. Of course, she was worried that the wings had been seriously damaged and would prevent the magpie from flying, but fortunately there didn’t appear to be anything obviously wrong with the wing, and when she removed the blanket, the magpie at once flapped its wings and flew off into the nearby eucalyptus forest. I’m sure at that moment my partner’s feelings were very mixed: on the one hand, she rejoiced in the fact that a small creature had been given another chance to carry on its existence, but on the other she was worried about the magpie’s cruelty with regard to other animals. But when all is said and done, magpies are just like human beings with many contradictions, so in the end she just sighed deeply and made her way slowly back to the car parked by the side of the dirt road.