Swooping Magpies

When Tom and Elizabeth took the farm

The bracken made their bed

and Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle

The magpies said.

Denis Glover’s opening stanza of his famous and familiar poem, The Magpies.

A favourite of mine and I’m sure of many of you.

Just the six stanzas where Tom and Elizabeth start farming, flourish then wither and pass on, but the magpies are a constant presence and remain.

Twenty-five years of this column and I don’t recall ever having mentioned magpies.

Somewhat surprising as they are a daily part of my life here on the farm and I need not remind you that the Hawkes Bay rugby team dressed in their black and white are known as the Magpies and supported by Hawkeye their mascot.

There have always been heaps of them here around the house and on the farm. There are often raucous engagements of groups of them around the house during the day and if you listen for them, they are always calling to each other. I enjoy watching them harass the gliding hawks who try to appear nonchalantly annoyed but not scared of these spitfire-like attacks.

Having read that they were tough on the native birds I once attempted an extermination program on them but despite a decent cull, it seemed to make little difference to the numbers, I soon tired of the killing and I later read that their nastiness to other species was overstated so I just went back to accepting them as part of the resident fauna.

One might assume that like many other Australian bird species, they had been swept across the Tasman by ferocious gales sometime in the last few thousand years. They are decent fliers. That’s what happened to the ungainly flying Pukeko, perhaps 800 years ago.

But they were introduced from Australia by Acclimatisation Societies between 1864 and 1874, mainly to control insect pests.

When they do tick me off is their territorial attacks at this time of the year during their nesting season.

Many of us have had this experience.

The cyclists from Waipukurau who ride this way have taken to wearing various paraphernalia on their helmets to help ward off attacks. Little balls bobbing on springs, wires, painted eyes on the back and such.

The last three years, what I imagine is the same bird has dive bombed me on the lambing beat always in the same place. Once you learn to anticipate the attack, its not so bad but this fellow clipped me the other day and that’s not on.

The next day I took my shotgun but went on the four-wheeler instead of the usual two-wheeler. It’s the male who does the attack and I know they are less likely to have a decent go if you are looking at him, so I averted my gaze.

I couldn’t incite him to attack even though I went backwards and forward in the usual strafing region.

I figured it was the change in the bike so next day was back on the two-wheeler and sure enough I saw him coming directly from his tree. I quickly stopped and popped two shells in the gun. I didn’t have time to dismount as he was coming like an arrow directly at me.

I should point out that I am one of the worst shots I know and don’t shoot ducks for this reason but also because I don’t enjoy it. But this was life and death or at least self-preservation.

I had planned to wait until he swooped up and became a slower moving target, but I think I must have slightly panicked as he showed no sign of doing so. I aimed at this hurtling missile and fired a barrel.

His wings immediately stopped beating and he passed a couple of meters over my head and hit the ground dead as a doornail. My only regret was that no one had witnessed this extraordinary feat of gunmanship.

I was interested to hear the following day that the Aussies were reporting strange happenings in what they call the ‘swooping season’.

It seems that magpies will target people they see as a threat. They can recognise human faces and research has shown they can identify up to 100 different people.

Some people are constantly victimised by the same magpie year after year and others completely left alone.

However, with face mask requirements because of the virus, it seems the birds are becoming more agitated as they can neither read faces nor identify the ones they have always considered threats.

So, they are now having a go at everyone rather than their usual favourite targets.

With a new appreciation of how smart they are with this facial recognition ability going on, next time I’m constantly attacked I’ll just put up with it as I’ve done in the past.

Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle.

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