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Monday, 22 March 2010


By Johna Ferguson

Oh how I wish I could understand what the magpies, which come daily to my yard here in China, say to each other in all their chattering.

First, squawking loudly while they move their tails up and down, they perch on the six-foot high wrought iron fence that surrounds our patio and garden. They come two-by-two. One stands guard while the other quickly drops down to feed on the grain I’ve scattered under the persimmon tree. Eventually the second one will drop down, but they both are on guard all the time, for they are very skitterish and hop from here to there while feeding.

There are about 12 different magpies that come into the yard daily, but one I can always identify. He must be a male, not only because he is bigger than the rest, but also from his actions. He only lets his partner feed, and if any others come near, he immediately scares them away by flying at them and at the same time squawking loudly. They are immediately intimidated I think by his size and power, but once he leaves they feel free to come again and feed.

I put grain out every night and they are often in the yard, greedily eating when I look out my office window at 7:00AM. They don’t feed long, just about 30 seconds at a time, but then they return several times during the day. They seldom come after four in the afternoon. It’s like, in this freezing weather, they want to bed down before the temperature drops too low.

I was told they love persimmons; if I put one on my window sill they would come and peck at it. I wanted to try that, but my husband said no; he thought they might make a bigger mess than it would be worth seeing them eat it. I have cut up hard bread and even cut my apple peels in tiny pieces for them.

One day I gave them some cooked corn from the cob and they devoured it. They also eat small rodents, dig for worms, eat insects, berries and nuts. They jab into and drink the enticing nectar from fresh fruits on the trees, like figs, and they often cache their food by digging a hole to bury it in and come back later to find it through use of sight and smell.

In the late fall they build their nests, taking more than a month to construct them, but they often use an old nest reworked to their satisfaction. In the winter you can see these nests high in the tall leafless tree branches. They are huge and oval shaped, built of small branches and twigs and lined with vines, moss, hair or anything soft they can find.

The breeding season is from March to July. The female lays from four to seven eggs in it yearly. The female incubates the babies for 18 – 24 days before they hatch. The babies are born naked so they require a lot of care by both parents, not only for warmth, but for food; for the first 3 weeks only the male leaves the nest to search for it.

They have a short life with their parents for they fly four to five weeks after hatching, then join the adults in looking for food and at the end of two months, they fly away on their own to join other youths.

But they mate for life, thus I always see them, two by two coming to eat. I know lots of people don’t like them because they eat the smaller birds' eggs, but then that’s the natural food chain.

Here in China, chattering ones are called “The Birds of Joy” signifying good news or the arrival of guests. It is auspicious if you see or hear one on your wedding day. There is also a wonderful folk tale about magpies flying to heaven to build a bridge so lovers who have been separated can meet once a year.

In a study by Dr. Helmut Prior of Germany, magpies, like great apes, elephants and to some extent dolphins, have been shown to show signs of self-awareness, a hallmark of advanced cognitive abilities in animals, although the magpie has no neocortex like animals. Previously it was thought that having a neocortex was necessary for this function.

They have a life span of four to six years, so some of these I see today will be gone next year and new ones will take their place, but I can only judge their age by their size. But we only live in China part of the year and the rest in the states and I have never seen a magpie in Seattle; just lots and lots of ugly crows which belong to the same family.

I never feed the crows or even like them as I do the magpies who are my special friends. In China, as a non-Chinese speaking person, it’s better to have birds as my friends instead of no one even though we can’t communicate with each other. Just watching them is joy enough for now.

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Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


An intriguing story. I also love birds and appreciate your care of them, but, why are you in China and not studying Chinese?

I always enjoy learning about birds' habits and quirks. I do love crows, though, and know that they are very intelligent. One of my writing friends had a piece on here a couple of weeks ago and I illustrated it with 2 of my hundreds of photos of crows!

Loved your story. T think it is so much fun to watch, study and photograph birds. The Magpies have captured your imagination.

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