One of the very first things I noticed about Canberra when I moved here was that every front yard seemed to be occupied by a pair of magpies. They patrolled the grass in a way that reminded me of the random trainers lurking in the grass in all the early 2000s Pokémon games. As though any second they’d spot you, an exclamation point would appear above their head and they’d rush over to do battle.
It’s Spring now, which means that cyclists are wearing their spiky helmets and our social media news feeds are filled with Magpie memes and helpfully assembled maps detailing swooping hot spots.
I know many people are wary of maggies. I can’t help but love them. Their song is one of the most quintessentially Australian sounds and I love watching them carolling in person – the way they throw their heads back as if the notes are simply pouring out of them.
My partner and I have befriended a Magpie family that lives near our apartment. Their territory seems to stretch across part of a nature strip, an intersection, a storm drain and one side of an avenue of trees. It’s not always easy to find them when I’m outside, but when I do catch sight of them and say hello, they always walk over to greet me. Or if I come across one, it’s never long before the other two fly over to join us.
Apparently Magpies make it their business to know the faces of everyone in their territory. It’s my theory that our apartment courtyard is normally no bird’s territory, but once we did see a member of the Magpie family sitting in a neighbour’s pot plant. I swear to God it did a double take when it saw us, surprised to see us in this unfamiliar area. After it overcame this shock, it flew over the fence to collect the other birds and they met us out on the footpath for a song and a bout of intense eye contact. It’s strangely satisfying that we were having these kind of encounters long before we started feeding them. Either those cunning maggies were playing the long game in getting snacks from us or they liked us for our excellent company. I can live with either option.
With the weather warming up again, I’ve taken to venturing out in the late afternoon or early evening armed with bits of ham. In the summer, they were taking food from our hands without hesitation. When we started the practise up again recently they were hesitant the first couple of times, but they quickly became bolder and braver.
For a long time, there was a mother, father and a baby but there’s definitely some nesting going on at the moment. For the last few weeks now, I’ve only seen two of them out and about. Of the pair that are currently on patrol, one of them seems to spend most of their time eating, while the other keeps an anxious eye out for potential threats – making sure to chase parrots and galahs out of nearby trees before relaxing enough to join us for a snack.
Yesterday I found one of our bird friends foraging for food across the intersection. Upon hearing my greeting, it marched straight over to take some ham from my outstretched fingers. As it proceeded to rub the ham in the dirt (giving it extra flavour or making for sure it’s dead – perhaps both), I was surprised when its companion didn’t immediately join us. I soon realised the other magpie felt the same way. It looked around, walking a few laps of the patch of grass before flying up into the branches of a white trunked gum tree. There, I caught sight of their nest for the first time. It seemed sturdy enough and I heard an unusual cry come within its depths – maybe it was the baby or perhaps the nesting mum? Either way, once my friend had consulted the nest, it flew across to a nearby lamp post and surveyed its kingdom.
When the other Magpie did not appear, it eventually swooped back down to join me for some more ham but I could tell it felt uneasy. I did too – the magpies around our neighbourhood are always crossing the road on foot instead of using those handy wings of theirs – they seem especially prone to doing this when traffic is busy too. I know they’re road smart, I’ve seen them play chicken with cars during peak hour and they always make it safely to the other side of the road, but I still worry for them anyway.
Last winter, there was a sassy duck that always sat on a bridge railing and quacked at me as I walked past – it kept company with two other ducks but it was the only one that perched on the roof and took umbrage at passing pedestrians. I was sad for days when I saw its flattened body on the pavement next to some road works. I knew it was him because I continued to see the other two ducks wandering the area, but neither of them ever perched on the bridge. What if the same fate befell my magpie friend? How would the rest of its family carry on? It would be too sad to see the others around, knowing what they’d lost.
While I was fretting, I sensed a movement behind me and suddenly the other magpie was there, black coat gleaming majestically, head tilted expectantly. It had materialised like Batman, I had no idea where it had come from – one second it was nowhere to be seen, the next it was striding forward to claim its ham.
‘Hey buddy,’ I said. ‘We’ve been worried about you.’
It snatched the ham from my fingers and proceeded to rub it in the dirt, returning a couple of times for a top up before wandering away to look for worms in the grass with its companion. I watched the two of them for a couple more minutes but they were no longer interested in me. I let them be, glad that I’m a small part of their lives and that they’re a lovely little part of mine too.
Manda Diaz is the co-creator of The Regal Fox.