The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Our early morning alarm call is chuck chuck chuck chuck. That means there’s a cat on the prowl, or worse still, a magpie. Cats I understand. They are hunters, just like lions and tigers. They do an essential job in keeping down vermin. But magpies! diddly-ah dum dum diddly-ah-dum dum With all due respects to Signor Rossini, they are conniving, thieving bastards. They spread alarm and despondency. They hunt in pairs. They wield old-style football rattles ratchet ratchet ratchet. Even football hooligans are forbidden to carry those old wooden rattles. It was said of the Stuka dive-bomber that the worst thing about it was the sound. Similarly, bank robbers use swearing and shouting to un-nerve their victims. Swathes of parks and gardens in suburban areas and cities are devoid of songbirds. I have seen magpies take ducklings in the zoo. They soar. They spy. They strike.
Magpies arrived in Ireland in 1650, the year after Cromwell, as if the poor, heart-scalded country hadn’t had enough trouble. They were carried by an easterly gale, to Carnsore Point, in Wexford, Hieron Akron, as Ptolemy called it…the Headland of the Priests. An ill wind. It’s Wind Turbine Akron now. My Auntie Peg, a Wexford woman, took my brother to see Cromwell’s grave—–and walk on it. I don’t imagine that she spat on it. She was not the spitting type. He told me that they tramped across it with pleasure. De mortuis nil nisi bonum Nah! Cromwell too, had the knack of bringing the silence of devastation to whole swathes of the country. I doubt if that bleak man took much pleasure in songbirds warbling in the branches overhead. Trees were for hanging men. Strangely, he is a hero to some people. I have never trodden on his grave but I have to admit to a certain satisfaction when I see a flattened magpie on the road, a rare occurrence. The bird was so engrossed in attending to a squished hedgehog or rat, that he failed to see his nemesis approaching. The black and white smudge can sometimes raise a wing to flap in the wind, a forlorn farewell or possibly, a final two fingers to the world. The curse o’ Crummel on them anyway. You might suspect that I am not fond of magpies.
The nest is at the top of that clematis. It took us by surprise. It imposed a duty of care on us. Meals have been interrupted by visits from the magpies and occasionally, the cats. Profanity helps, as any bank robber will tell you. Wildlife documentary makers assert that you do not intervene. We learned that lesson fifty years ago, when we rescued an abandoned blackbird chick. We fed and sheltered it until it fledged and flew around our sitting room spattering the furniture with Stuka precision. It came to our whistle and perched on a shoulder. We released it into the garden but, sadly, there were feathers on the lawn in the morning. It hadn’t learned the fear necessary for survival.
This little fellow was the first to venture from the nest. He crash-landed. I put him back again, against all the rules. ‘Feck that,’ he said and dived out again. He took refuge in shrubbery , where his parents found him. They have fed him constantly for days but now they have become somewhat impatient. It’s a steep learning curve for a chick. He has made it to the top of a fuschia bush. He flies like Buzz Lightyear… falling with style, but he is getting the hang of it.
Wildlife photographers wouldn’t approve of my photography either. The lighting and focus are all wrong. He looks decidedly disgruntled but he has achieved something great. We think that we hear his sibling in a neighbouring garden. A third chick became a dusting of feathers on the lawn on a dewy morning. It’s a harsh world out there. We thought that our parenting years were behind us, that our chicks had all flown the nest, but this little fellow brought some of that parental anxiety back again. Good luck to him and to his brave and exemplary parents.
Who is this however? Where did he come from? A baby sparrow, apparently abandoned. There are no parents in evidence. Here we go again.