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.