A Conundrum

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We returned to a Cedar Mountain outlined by strong-willed wildflowers. Fields of purposeful green stretched below; the untroubled sky melted away; and grasshoppers bounced off our legs.

We topped a hill and stepped into a meadow where staccato calls announced the glossy presence of magpies dressed in burnished black and white, reminiscent of penguins and nuns. Startled by our presence, the birds fled the scrub-brush where they chatted, then, their wing-beats alternating between shallow and deep, they wheeled into the sky and executed sharp turns with their rudder-like tails.

We watched as the slender-bodied birds, trailing tail feathers and reproachful calls, crossed a boulder-strewn ravine and perched on a distant juniper where, discussing our rudeness and debating our worth, they moved about restlessly, dislodging one another as though playing a graceful game of musical chairs. We watched until, tired of either their location or our attention, they took to the sky again and disappeared over a rough-backed ridge.

As we continued our hike, we talked about humanity’s split decision on the worth of the bold and showy birds we enjoyed watching. We knew from conversations with others that people hold contrasting viewpoints about the merit of magpies, opinions as stark as the black-and-white plumage of the birds in question.

When magpies are tried in the courtroom of public opinion, prosecutors claim the birds have an arrogant, entitled attitude. They feel free to collect and keep shiny objects, whether they own them or not; and they regularly dine with satisfaction on the nested eggs of their fellow birds. Thus, they, and they alone, are responsible for the dismaying disappearance of entire flocks of songbirds. No wonder folklore portrays magpies as evil. They are.

The defense responds that magpies are wondrous to watch and would never eat breeding song birds as do our adored house cats, which gobble them whenever possible. Furthermore, we humans pave and poison the landscapes where birds used to frolic and sing, so we are the culprits most responsible for their declining population. The magnificent magpies, in fact, serve humanity by destroying pesky insects and eating road kill. No wonder some nations view magpies as birds of beauty, intelligence and sturdy spirit. They are.

So, ladies and gentlemen of the jury: Are magpies innocent beauties of intelligence performing valuable community service, or are they empty-headed killers waging war on songbirds? In bird land, do they belong in beauty pageants because of their physical magnificence or in covens because of their wicked ways?

Each must decide whether to condemn  or laud magpies; but, either way, they won’t give a damn.

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52 thoughts on “A Conundrum

  1. Magpies have their place, as do we all.

    I really rather like them and they keep me amused many times when I’m in my craft room and looking out of the window watching them. They’re funny birds with a large sense of humour.

    Did you know they can talk, like parrots can talk? Well … you do now. 🙂

    Someone I know rescued a Magpie from a cat. It had been badly beaten up and had a broken wing. She cared for it and housed it in an old aviary outside in the garden. When, after weeks of caring for it and paying rather a lot for veterinary care, the vet said that he should be released back into the wild, carefully.

    So the door to the aviary was opened and left open. The magpie took two days to come out, and then walked about on the top of the roof, and went back inside as the light faded.

    Eventually the bird did attempt to fly, and after a few tries it managed to get off the ground and fly. However … it never left her. He was free to come and go as he pleased, but he always came ‘home’ again. The only times the door was closed was at night – so that he was totally safe from foxes.

    He eventually learnt to talk, and was quite the conversationalist. I fell in love with him. He was a bit of a rascal and wasn’t shy about taking knives, forks, spoons, bits of jewellery which he found in the house, out in the garden or other places. But he was too wonderful to scold. lol

    A beautiful post Aunt Beulah. I was with you all the way.
    Have a blessed rest of your day ~ Cobs. x

    Liked by 2 people

    • What a pleasure it was to read this detailed reply about a plucky and charming magpie. I did know they can talk, but have never heard one do so. I also know they are one of the more intelligent birds, and I think they are beautiful and funny. I, too, enjoy watching them. Your friend who rescued a magpie did a good deed and was rewarded with a friend. Their story makes me happy.

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  2. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one, Janet, but I tend to lean toward live and let live. I’d let the other species battle it out. Otherwise, humans will be expected to try to find a solution. I don’t think those ever end particularly well. Invasive species, usually the result of unintentional human intervention might be another case, but…

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    • I think you’d find magpies striking in appearance and interesting in their behavior. I agree that too often when we humans try to solve problems in the animal kingdom, we only make matters worse. I, too, am of the live and let live mindset.

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  3. It’s curious that you’ve written about magpies in this wonderfully evocative post, as we’ve a pair of them that have been visiting a tree in our garden (yard) for the past week or so. They are much too shy to allow themselves to stay and they fly off as soon as either of them catch even the slightest glimpse of us, but they are noisy in their conversations with each other and most of their interest lies in a cornfield nearby. They’ve touched down a couple of times on the patio but again, haven’t lingered, so our small birds are safe.

    I think they do, indeed, take the eggs and occasionally fledglings of smaller birds, but they don’t do it out of spite or any human emotion, just to live. That said, I shoo them off if they – like any of the other predatory birds – are aiming themselves in the direction of the littler birds, because those small birds are our friends. And, I don’t knoiw about you, but I don’t like my friends to be eaten!

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    • I don’t think I’ve ever seen a shy magpie, Val, but then I’ve never had them wander into my home turf as you have. It’s true they dine on the eggs and fledglings of other birds, but as you so wisely said, that’s what they do to live. I’m certain I would shoo them away from the nests of the smaller birds that we enjoy in our yard for the same reason you mentioned in your last sentence (which made me laugh!). I loved your comment.

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  4. I think nature sorts itself out given the opportunity. It is us humans who have upset the balance that may set birds and other creatures to different behaviours in order to survive. Great post, thought provoking. 🙂 Lnda

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    • I couldn’t agree with you more, Linda. We humans have upset the balance, and to often we look for something to blame besides ourselves. I’m glad you found this post thought-provoking. I hoped it would be.

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  5. Magpies are a great example of Chinese Yin Yang principles with their distinctive black n white showing of both sides of life the good and the bad they are beautiful birds and come in so many different guises in the UK years ago I saw some with fan tails our n z birds are quite big and straight tailed , they are know to dive bomb humans in their territories but I still believe there is a place for them in our world.

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    • I’m glad you, too, see the sharp contrast of the magpies coloring; to me, it seems the perfect metaphor for how the birds themselves are viewed as both both good and bad. also thanks for mentioning the different guises they wear. When I researched while writing this post, I was surprised by their many different looks, especially those with fan tails. I, too, believe they have a place in the world and shouldn’t be harassed by humans — though I’d make an exception, I’m sure, if I were being dive bombed.

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  6. Magpies do have their place in nature, and yes, I do know they prey on the eggs and young of other birds. However, there is a much bigger problem when it comes to losing our treasured songbirds—cats. I know cat lovers don’t like to admit this, but there has been a great deal of research done about the extent to which they are responsible for the depletion of songbirds. Don’t forget, cats are predators, and very effective ones, too!

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    • You are so right. I did a little research as I wrote this post, Diane, and was surprised when I discovered the impact of cats on the songbird population; yet people don’t kill and hang cats on fences like they do to magpies in the western states where I have lived my life. The other major factor in the decline of songbirds I discovered was the loss of bird habitat due to human activity. Nevertheless, magpies seem to be the chosen villain. I appreciate your comment.

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    • I agree, Glynis. They do well at their job, and at the same time look mighty fine doing it, which couldn’t be said of me during many of my working days! There is wisdom in your words “Life is neither kind nor cruel. It just is.” Thanks for commenting.

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  7. “We returned to a Cedar Mountain outlined by strong-willed wildflowers. Fields of purposeful green stretched below; the untroubled sky melted away; and grasshoppers bounced off our legs.”
    A wonderful opening. This piece is the best example of descriptive writing I’ve seen in a very long time. Good Job, Janet.
    “Purposeful green, strong-willed wildflowers”–Fabulous!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I love the image of magpies playing a graceful game of musical chairs! I’ve watched that behavior many times but never had a way to describe it—until reading your wonderful metaphor.

    I agree with you that humans have paved, poisoned and altered the landscape to such a degree that it’s difficult to define other species as “wicked”. But whether we define them as wicked or wonderful, Magpies occupy a special niche in the world that only they can fill, as do all other animal and plant species. And, as you said in your reply to Dan Antion, when humans intervene in animal affairs we seem to only make matters worse.

    So, yes, to live and let live!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I knew you and I would be of the same mind in thinking that all creatures have, as you so aptly expressed, “…a special niche in the world that only they can fill…” I like it that you encompassed plant species as well in that viewpoint. Thank you for noticing my musical chairs metaphor. I put some thought into it and tweaked it a bit until it rang true to me. At first, I wrote “rambunctious game of musical chairs” but feel it truly described their movement and fussed about it until the word “graceful” popped into my head. I look forward to you comments, Rita.

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  9. Love this blog/metaphor for the human experience. Everything and everyone (bird or other) has the potential for great good and great evil, and in reality, they do a bit of both. Very well written. Thanks for posting this. I very much enjoyed it.

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  10. With this type of conundrum, I can rely on a pretty simple criterion: The black-billed magpie is native to the US. My beloved kitty is not.
    The magpie is a wondrous and natural creature making a living. As a cat-keeper, it’s my responsibility to keep my cat from harming nature. The magpie’s in, my cat is not. Thanks for your beautiful post.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for your reasonable, well written comment. You’ve obviously given the conundrum I proposed some thought. I wish I had explained it as well. I like thinking of magpies as “making a living.” So good to hear from you.

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  11. A friend of mine has had a pet magpie for years, named Noel. He lived in their backyard for seven years and one day they went to visit him in his cage to discover that Noel had laid an egg!

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  12. Hi Aunt Beulah,
    I don’t take kindly to the magpie that thinks he owns the park across the road and anyone who dares to enter the park will be swiftly swooped upon and attacked until they flee in fear….this magpie is positively a conundrum all on his own….he is a defiant, annoying little chap, he has unsuspecting people ducking and running for cover every day of his life. I fear his life might be a short one if he continues with his shenanigans.
    The jury finds this magpie guilty of assault, punishment to be decided.
    I love your stories Aunt Beulah, they are always captivating and this time you gave us a challenge…lots of fun!!!!!
    Much love and big hugs from
    Annie in Australia 🌞 🌴 🌊 💜

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    • At last, Annie, someone who looks at magpies with a more questioning eye, and it’s my favorite bright spirit from Australia. I knew from my reading that not everybody was a friend of magpies and was hoping to get some alternative viewpoints. Thank you for pointing out their truly troublesome behavior. Yours might be the lone voice that will hang this particular jury and force the entire matter into a retrial? How are you feeling, dear friend. Is it still more bad days than good? I think of you every time I go over a bump in my road to good health, and it has been a bit bumpy lately, and I say to myself, “I wish I could talk to Annie about this; she would help me put things into perspective and probably make me laugh as well.” Love and hugs and well wishes back to you from Janet in a nation in turmoil!

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  13. Aunt Beulah I am not at all impressed with all these dash bumps in the road impeding our road to recovery or at least some form of acceptable wellness again.
    I was just beginning to dodge a few and before I could say “Bob’s me uncle” a big ol’ hill appeared and now I have to muster the strength to climb right over it.
    I am right there with you Aunt Beulah, we will just ride over these bumps and hills, how about on our Harley’s. I hear you say “but I don’t have a Harley, Annie”. Well imagine we do and how much fun we can have, knocking over these hurdles and getting fit and well together. Let’s call Lucie and tell her to jump on her Harley and join us. What a cracker of a time we would have!!!!!
    I know I know! we just have to learn how to ride them first, but we are clever cookies, not a problem!
    We can do it Aunt Beulah😉😕😂
    Each day is a brand new day, love it, live it, own it!!!!!!
    I didn’t think of that, but I have heard it said before.
    As Lucie would say, Keep swimmin’ just keep swimming!!!!!
    I am just about to read your latest story, and I can’t wait!!
    Sending warm fuzzy hugs wrapped in love from
    Annie in Australia 🌞 🌴 🌊 💜
    P.S I am too scared to watch the news, American politics is starting to look very similar to Australian politics, we have Dumb and Dumber down here,
    You have Punch and Judy Aunt Beulah, DJ Trump and Hilary are like married puppets, in the end stage of marriage…
    I think Mr Punch might end up in the dog house!!
    Judy will sneak over the line, and keep the house, the car, and the rest,
    It’s very nasty though, I can imagine all of America thinking how the hell will this marriage end?????? 😯😭

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    • I laughed and smiled all the way through this comment, Annie, especially when I visualize you, Lucie, and I riding our Harleys so fast over a bumpy road we don’t even feel it and laughing loudly as we do so. As you say, no problem for ladies as clever and gutsy as we. Love Lucie’s advice, and it is indeed what we must do, though I’m no swimmer. But if I can ride a Harley surely I can swim the ocean as well. As for your analysis of our politics, I read it to Joel and he laughed aloud, exclaiming, “That’s perfect!” Well done, Annie. Warm, love-filled hugs back to you, Annie. Keep swimming.

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