Magpies and Cable Ties

The magpies are out for spring. I've joined the other bike riders on my route who have festooned their helmets with cable ties. We look suspiciously like the sort of person who is wearing tinfoil on their head!

I think magpies enjoy pushbikes. They leave me alone in the mornings, when I crawl slowly up the hill. The daily dog walkers seem unbothered. When I return at speed down the hill, in the evening, I am a challenge to enjoy.

The warning squawks, and beaks snapping above my head, are familiar to any Australian who lives near magpies during the spring. The scrape of claws across the top of a bike helmet, as the magpie does a second pass, is also familiar. But this year, the downhill crowd have introduced a new tactic. My first warning was a thud, as though the magpie had tucked its undercarriage well up, and belly flopped into me, skidding off the helmet. It was only a trial run. A few seconds later the magpie hit me square on, under my helmet, just over the ear. I lurched across the path, almost losing the bike. It felt like a football kicked into my head. Hence the cable ties.

I'm sure animal behaviourists have an explanation for all this, based on defense of territory. I wouldn't disagree, but I think there is also something analogous to enjoyment happening.

I lived with magpies as a kid; Dad would feed his pet maggies scraps of meat when he fed the cat, just outside the house yard. Cat and magpies used to eye each other balefully. The cat knew he was not the one in charge!

The farmhouse had a yard about 10 yards wide on all sides. Then, 20 or 30 yards to the south, there was another fence on the way to the sheds. Magpies would gather down there, past the barn.

One would fly up to the house, past the fence on the north side. It would land out by the pine tree, and very obviously pretend to be looking for grubs and worms in the grass. Then one or two others would take off and fly 18 inches above ground at high speed. They would hop the shed fence, and drop down again in a maneuver that would be the envy of the Dambusters. Another hop would see them over the house fence, and they would barnstorm across the garden, round the side of the house. Racing across the front lawn, a last hop would take them over the north side fence, and down on to the "unsuspecting" target, with screeches and snapping beaks.

It was a favourite game. None of us were ever hit in one of these bombing runs; they obviously made sure no one was in the side and front yard before the game began. If we were way out the front of the house, we would see the whole sortie. There were variations, like the one where the attacker would keep hurtling past its target, skim the scrub fence, and disappear anonymously into the trees.

Pure magpie.

How often are we pure homo sapiens? How often do we simply enjoy being alive? Do we run or ride for the sheer pleasure of it? If we are older, do we walk and enjoy the scent of the flowers and watch the birds? Or do we work all day, and then come home and just exist, in front of the TV?

I mostly get sick, and depressed, when I stop being human. Work takes over. TV, or books, become diversions of exhaustion, or excuses not to think, instead of celebrations of our human being. I become a slave to doing. Those are the times I need to recover the magpie part of my nature.

Andrew

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