Margaret the Magpie

Margaret the Magpie’s baby is dead.

I found it on the curve of the road when I had wandered out after breakfast to see how the garden was getting on. I had been pleased to see the first agapanthus splitting open its flower pod then, out of the corner of my eye, noticed a small mound on the dirt road.  I stepped closer. It was a bird.

Up closer, I recognised it as a magpie chick. It must be Margaret’s. It was absolutely flattened, wings spread wide, head sideways and beak parted, legs and claws splayed. The grey brown down on its breast gently fluttered in the wind. There was a string of guts on the gravel, so recently burst from its body that they were still red and moist. A blow fly appeared.

Weeping quietly, I picked it up by its two wings. The blob of guts dangled. My tears burst as I carried it off the dirt road into our garden.

We had been feeding a lone, nervy, female magpie for a couple of months. She would appear on the back of the chair on the deck and stare into the room, compelling me to drop everything and feed her. She never sang.

We decided she needed a name as she seemed such a regular and recognisable visitor. ‘Margaret’ seemed to fit.

During the last few weeks we realised that she was appearing more often and taking large quantities of food. Aha! She must have some chicks in a nest. On a walk, we heard the unmistakable calling of hungry magpie chicks from a tree on the other side of the park. There was a large nest up in a tall gum and later we saw Margaret swooping up to it.

Recently, after she’d swallowed a large amount of food to regurgitate for the chicks, she’d take a few intact pellets in her beak. The record was three at once. I joked that she was putting her babies onto solids.

Last Saturday, Margaret appeared almost as soon as I’d opened the curtains, staring hard at me through the rain. She looked terrible: wet plumage blown in all directions, thin and jumpy. I was very pleased to feed her and have a quiet chat about the babies.

On Sunday morning, a calmer day, she swooped off with her full crop to a gum tree just over the road. ‘Feed me!’ squawking started up amidst a flutter of wings. Through the leaves we saw a large chick with a fluffy brown-grey breast and back. Margaret ferried food back and forth. The chick flew closer and perched on the heavy black cable between the lamp posts where it sat there comfortably, still being fed. A bit later, it flew off with its mother to land on the grass of the park. It was interesting to watch the chick walking around with its mum, learning to peck at the ground.

Over the next couple of days, it flew up to the trees in our garden, getting closer and closer. We looked forward to the day when it would land on the deck railing to be fed with its mother. Margaret started to sing small songs which seemed to coincide with the emergence of her fledgling.

It was on its fourth day out of the nest, that it was run over and killed.

Later that morning, Margaret flew up to the deck and looked at me. I offered her some food. She took a bit of time to approach but took a small quantity. She hopped back, cleaned her beak and flew off in a slow rising swoop across the park. A small song floated back across the grass.

She was eating for one again.

MAN, DOG AND MAGPIE

MAN, DOG AND MAGPIE.

I was heading towards the shops for milk and bread and saw an old brown cattle dog on the nature strip. His white face was down, sniffing the scruffy grass, his hind legs splayed. He decided to take a step forward but his back legs gave way and he lurched to the side. As I grew nearer, he looked at me.

‘Hello’, I said. ‘You’re an old boy, aren’t you?’

His owner, an old boy himself, smiled.

‘Yes, he’s got muscle wastage in his hindquarters.’

‘Yes, I can see that.’ Indeed, his hips were hollow.

The dog continued to sniff and take small staggers across the dried-up grass. He dropped and did a shakey, slow, yellow pee. There was no strength to lift his leg.

‘How old is he?’

‘Oh, he’s seventeen and four months.’

‘That’s a good age. My dog was fourteen and ten months when she died.’

‘Yes, we used to walk fifty kilometres a week when he was younger. Now, it’s just out here in front.’

‘That would have kept you both fit.’

‘Yes, I just bring him out when he wants to now.  You know, I’ve had to adjust his feeds because he can’t stand at his bowl long enough for a full feed. So I give him three meals a day. He has chicken and rice in the morning, beef and rice for lunch and then for dinner I give him warm chicken pieces. He just loves those. You should just see him chase them around his bowl.’

We stand and smile at the love given to the dog.

‘Oh, hello you,’ he looks across to a magpie walking on the grass near the dog. ‘Come on then.’

The maggie swoops low past us and lands on the black iron railings of the single fronted cottage we’re standing near.

I turn to continue on my way to the shops and he and his dog head towards the open gate.

The magpie looks directly at me and sings a quiet, reflective song. My soul soaks up the gift of the liquid notes.

‘Oh, how beautiful. Thank you, maggie.’

‘Yes, I feed him too. He comes to see me. And the wattlebird.’

I’d noticed the wattlebird fussing around on the guttering above our heads. I’m familiar with wattlebirds bothering magpies and say so.

‘Yes, I throw a bit of food up to him too.’

‘What do you feed them.’

‘Oh, minced steak.  I go through a couple of hundred grams a week.’

The bird continued to look directly at me, now just over a metre away, and opened its beak to release a different beautiful song which floated up over the parked cars and through the early spring leaves of the plane trees. I gazed in gratitude at its crisp plumage and powerful beak.

‘Well, I’d better get on,’ I say to the man.

‘Yes’, he replies, heading into his front door after the dog, which had finally made it up the front step. In the sunlight at the end of a long hallway, washing was draped on a clothes horse. A large dog bed almost filled the width of the hall.

‘Yes, now my days are spent looking after the dog and the birds.’

‘Well, you could do worse than that. Bye.’

I walked on, thinking, ‘Where did that cliché come from? I’m becoming jolly and elderly!’

But then, I realised that the simple words offered a profound truth about the comfort of animals, the happiness generated by loving something and the potential loneliness of old age. The best thing was, it said all of that but wasn’t sentimental or intrusive. Maybe there’s a place for clichés after all.

Post Script. 10.12.18

Albert has died.

I learnt today, passing the house again, that the dog was called Albert and that he had died. The man was at his gate at his gate talking to a woman with a pram and I heard fragments of a conversation which had to be about the death of a dog. I stopped, excused myself for interrupting and asked the question.

Yes, he had died. The man still feels terrible. Albert died on Oct 17. He had called the vet as there was no doubt that his dog was fading.

This was three days before his own birthday on 20th. That day was the worst day of his life.

The local traders brought him flowers and still ask after him.

Now, the front room, Albert’s room, is a shrine. Albert’s ashes are in there and all his photos of Albert are around the room.

We agreed that losing a dog sometimes seems harder to bear than losing a person.