Magpies at play

September 12, 2010

Having just visited Melbourne at the start of spring, I was reminded of this video of magpies playing on the shed roof of our place in late 2007. While the Australian magpie is taxonomically a member of Artamidae, their colouring and cleverness have often led to their being associated with the Corvidae and their strong presence in European myth and fable. Ambrose Bierce defines magpies as “A bird whose thievish disposition suggested to someone that it might be taught to talk.” (The Devil’s Dictionary) Hold tight to your gold and silver; guard your words; perhaps also cover your head. According to Pliny the Elder, they not only become fond of the words they learn, but “It is a well-known fact, that a magpie has died before now, when it has found itself mastered by a difficult word that it could not pronounce.” (Natural History, book 10, 59) And though for Aesop the magpie’s words might bring down the peacock’s ambition, La Fontaine tells us that they also keep it from itself joining esteemed company, such as that of the eagle, for not “any babbler, for that matter / Could more incontinently chatter.” (Fables, XII, 11) According to Martial, if one were to hear a magpie without seeing it, one would not think it a bird at all. Isidore, of course, agrees with everyone.

For Aesop, they are capable of imitating all other birds, dressing themselves in their feathers, as if they were to birds what we are to animals in general. They can of course use tools ingeniously: to protect their eggs, “They lay a twig upon two eggs, and then solder them to it by means of a glutinous matter secreted from their body; after which, they pass their neck between the eggs, and so forming an equipoise, convey them to another place.” (Natural History, book 10, 50) They apparently pass the mirror test, too: “spontaneous self-directed behavior” and other “results show that magpies are capable of understanding that a mirror image belongs to their own body.” (Prior, Schwarz & Güntürkün 2008: 1644, 1647)

Speaking of the the Australian magpie, Gisela Kaplan (2004) lovingly describes the complex behaviour and vocalisations of these successful generalists: their methodical foraging and exacting etiquette; their well-calibrated agonistic displays, from carolling to swooping; their lifelong, open-ended song learning and mimicry; their leisurely warbling and active play. Speech, trickery, technics, play, plasticity, self-recognition: these clever birds chip away at the con of human uniqueness.

However my favourite quote, this time authentic to the region and species, but drawing on the same tropes as the fabulist tradition, is from Mark Twain’s 1897 travelogue Following the Equator:

“The magpie was out in great force, in the fields and on the fences [near Horsham]. He is a handsome large creature, with snowy white decorations, and is a singer; he has a murmurous rich note that is lovely. He was once modest, even diffident; but he lost all that when he found out that he was Australia’s sole musical bird. He has talent, and cuteness, and impudence; and in his tame state he is a most satisfactory pet—never coming when he is called, always coming when he isn’t, and studying disobedience as an accomplishment. He is not confined, but loafs all over the house and grounds, like the laughing jackass. I think he learns to talk, I know he learns to sing tunes, and his friends say that he knows how to steal without learning. I was acquainted with a tame magpie in Melbourne. He had lived in a lady’s house several years, and believed he owned it. The lady had tamed him, and in return he had tamed the lady. He was always on deck when not wanted, always having his own way, always tyrannizing over the dog, and always making the cat’s life a slow sorrow and a martyrdom. He knew a number of tunes and could sing them in perfect time and tune; and would do it, too, at any time that silence was wanted; and then encore himself and do it again; but if he was asked to sing he would go out and take a walk.”

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2 Responses to “Magpies at play”

  1. Adam Says:

    My uncle Merve Browne, who lived on the Hawkesbury River, used to tell the story of a magpie friend whom he’d feed regularly, and who had grown bold enough to eat from the cat’s bowl. He would perch on Merve’s chest and warble when the former was asleep, waking him for feeding time. Sometimes the magpie would leave gifts; and once, Merve woke to a tickling on his lips. The magpie was trying to feed him a living funnelweb spider. When you consider that funnelwebs are deadly only to humans and guineapigs, you realise it’s a very generous gift, and Merve felt like an ingrate turning it down.


  2. That sounds so apocryphal I can’t help but believe it!

    I haven’t yet found the New South Welsh magpies to be quite as magnanimous and playful as the Victorians – not to the point of laying on their backs, anyway. But probably I’m just not part of the right tidings.


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