A Conundrum


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.