‘These birds recognise us,’ says my friend.
We are cycling and now pause briefly at the park entrance. I look up to see a small group of black-back magpies (Cracticus tibicen). They are well known to recognise individual people and animals, defending their territories by dive bombing those they dislike. But these fly about us much like the smaller willy wagtail, who greet people who enter their spaces.
‘See them? They are waiting for treats. They’ll fly ahead to where we usually stop.’
Sure enough, the birds meet us there. Judging from their feathers, some are dark, handsome adults and others lighter, speckled juveniles. My friend offers bits of raw meat. The adults are the first to approach and collect.
The juveniles flatten their bodies and raise their open beaks. They call out in that plaintive way of baby birds. The cry is urgent, reminding me of desperate human infants. Adults respond, first feeding these youngsters who are as big as themselves. Finally, they eat some food themselves.
And the sexes involved in this food fiesta? You can distinguish them sometimes by size but also by comparing the white patch on their backs. Female feathers are somewhat mottled while male ones almost pure white. An adult feeding another adult is likely to be a larger male feeding a slightly smaller female partner.
The adults feeding juveniles are almost certainly females. But of these females, one will be the actual parent and others are helpers. Season by season, the group raises young. Perhaps some become parents themselves in that group or in one of their own making.
Such cooperation shakes up old norms about bird life which were long modelled on heterosexual Christian mores. In other species, the helpers of kookaburras and noisy miners can be males who not only feed but defend.
The biologist Tim Low describes these extended families as ‘life in the slow lane’. After lengthy incubation, the young hatch out and remain dependent for a long time. The adults can live to thirty years of age. Eventually, if conditions suit, they may become parents but certainly will become helpers.
The closest relatives of magpies are black butcherbirds. Their ancestors moved from rainforests and mangroves to open ground, becoming smarter birds. During colonial times, they were favourite pets, imitating human speech and other sounds. They also acted as house guards. Today, they are thriving in their wild populations along with other large birds: parrots, currawongs and noisy miners. They manage well in spite of us.
But what changes have they brought on us? We are still confused: we are as likely to shoot them as pests as we are to share food as mates. But what deeply affects us are their calls. Their soft solo songs, which can last for over an hour. Pairs or groups that carol in chorus about their territories. The short, loud songs at dawn and dusk. The harsh warning shrieks.
Our poets, with their deep sensibilities for song and feelings, speak about magpies. Of their carols, Judith Wright says ‘such a song of grace and praise’. But Douglas Stewart, from a generation before, argues with a devilish magpie as he walks the last two long miles to where ‘that wild woman’s waiting on the steps of her shack’.
And his fellow poet, Denis Glover, tells of Tom and Elizabeth, who broke their lives farming. He reports the magpie, overlooking both their hope and despair, endlessly sings the same ‘Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle’.