Sunday, November 23, 2003

Da boids, da boids

Of all the world's songbirds, I'm ready to argue that the Australian magpie has the sweetest song - and one of the most complex and varied. It's the chortle which captivates. A truly joyous sound. Lyrical and musical.
Yes, I've heard nightingales. I once lived in one of their most famous English habitats and could listen to them night after night through the casement windows of our old farmhouse. Very complex calls - but not what I'd call pretty. Not like the maggie.
Of course a lot of Aussie birds are plain raucous. The parrots of every variety really. The galahs and corellas shriek. The black cockatoos have a mournful and strident call which they seem to make almost incessantly in flight. Rosellas and lorikeets have a sweeter call.
But the maggie, the darling maggie. And it is a clever, warbling bird with a long lifespan.
Each day our magpie family comes to the balcony at Encounter Bay looking for the morsels of ground beef we offer. They announce their presence with a few soft calls or a warbling song. The parent birds take the food from our hands. The young this year are more timid. They are getting bolder, but they still like us to stand back and leave the mince on the rail for them. Last year's brood was infinitely more confident. One of them used to open its beak for us to put the food in as its parents do.
But they all have their distinct characters - which is evident in their calls. No two are quite the same. And the young have to learn - sometimes not very easily. They have to work on those chortles. The early efforts can be utterly awful as they reach in their throats to find the resonances which will warble.
Today one of the young birds made the first morning visit alone. He was approaching his morsel on the rail when a couple of ravenous seagulls tried to make a dive for the food. Suddenly a parent magpie materialised. He must have been watching the young one from the trees. And oh, boy, did he swoop in to defend the territory - fierce and fast across the lawn for a direct hit at the fleeing seagulls. The gull, minus a feather or two, flew back to the beach and the parent magpie landed on the rail, wings curved out around the body and, before he would accept any food, he insisted on singing to me - a long, triumphant and eloquenct warbling which, I think, was his way of saying that he was lord of all he surveyed and had just demonstrated same in dispatching a rude intruder.

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