Thursday, August 8, 2013

Gifts of the Crow, by John Marzluff and Tony Angell

We've had a magpie couple living in the mini-woods along our driveway ever since last fall. "Trouble," we call them, and "tree-toppers," because they insist on flailing to stay atop the highest twig on the tallest trees in the neighborhood. These two magpies punctuate our every morning, and their presence pleased us to no end when we first moved in. (I'd be lying if I said that the abundance of magpies in the Durango area didn't influence our decision to live here.) Every time we take a walk, we greet the birds, whether we can see them or not. "Hi, magpies!" we call. "Hi, trouble!"

This spring, we watched the two schemers collect building materials from nature's Home Depot for their nest. Just as a Labrador retriever will insist on carrying more tennis balls in his mouth than he can actually hold, these gumptious magpies swooped through trees with twigs longer than themselves. We knew they were making babies. "Make babies!" we hollered to them. And before long, we heard series of calls in a fresher, higher pitch than usual. They made babies!

We had to leave the house for a few weeks this summer. Our landlady agreed to water the plants, and I really wanted to ask her to keep an eye on the magpies for us. We didn't want them thinking we had left for good.

The week before our trip, we found two beautiful magpie feathers in the driveway, little gifts from our flighty friends. These wing feathers revealed the white blocks that fan out like poker hands when the magpies take flight, and the black border shows flashes of green and blue and violet when you stare at it just carefully enough.

This story can only have one ending, can't it? When we returned from our time afield, the trees before our house stood strangely still and bare. One day without magpies means they're up to something; two days is an aberration. After a week, we had to acknowledge that our magpies were gone.

At this point, most people who have heard this story pull their lips tight into a sympathetic grimace. But we don't believe that the magpies are dead. (And if they are, they probably went down defending their brood against a bobcat.) These birds are smart; more likely than the death of an entire family is that they relocated. Maybe it was for a change of scenery; maybe the summer monsoons drove them from their nest.

We like to think that our wing feathers were truly gifts from our neighboring magpies. Parting gifts, because they knew us and where we walked, and they also knew they would be leaving soon.

A whole lot of hippie-minded mumbo jumbo? Our human knack for putting human meaning where there's just the cruel facts of nature? Could be. Or it could be that these birds are as clever and brilliant as John Marzluff and Tony Angell have shown them to be. Gifts of the Crow -- the magpie is the cleverest child in the crow family -- is full of anecdotes showing just how much corvids and humans think and act alike. Behind the stories, they have a career's worth of observation and scientific study.

Which means, these magpies remember us, and literally (not just sentimentally) always will. Without the ominous overtones, they know where we live. So we await their potential return. Every jay's caw causes us to dash for the windows, only to be disappointed. Yet our hope has wings; this week, we separately spotted two magpies swooping in that familiar arc over the driveway and into the brush.

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