I am in a unique position at work in that I can observe and interact with “The Hurley Drive Mob” all day and just about seven days a week. My partner and I wholesale computer parts from a warehouse that is part of a twenty-five unit complex. The complex has a garden, bush along the back of one side and a large grassy area along another. There are several high vantage points for the magpies to survey their domain and a supply of fresh clean water at our unit. Most of my day is spent at the open roller door filling orders.
Two years ago, a few magpies showed up and much to their delight, several people in the complex shared the remains of their lunches. Realising that a diet of chips is not good, I began bringing in little packets of mince. I was thrilled to be able to hand feed them and very excited when five juveniles joined the party.
It seemed so obvious to me that there is purpose behind their songs and they listen to what another is singing. In September 2007, my Mother became quite ill and there was a five-day delay before I could get a flight to the United States. I was in quite a state and even resorted to dusting to keep busy. One of the mature magpies perched at eye level at my work desk by the roller door and started singing ever so softly to me. She was singing so quietly, my partner in the office did not hear. Her song was so lovely and compassionate, interspersed with soft clicks and went on for several minutes. I was totally rapt. She was definitely saying something meant just for me – I do not know what but I fell in love with the little buggers.
After Christmas, the magpie population slowly decreased. I don’t know what caused them to leave but one by one they moved on. There came a day in February that not a one showed up for morning tea. I was devastated, hoping that perhaps come spring they would return. Suddenly with much fanfare, the five juveniles flew in together, looking for all the world like a group of naughty teenagers and belted out what I now know is their territorial song.
It is great fun being part of this clan of magpies. They enjoy resort style living and I am their pet human! Their behaviour is slightly different if I feed them in the garden instead of at the roller door. They tend to hide some of the mince and go to great lengths tearing up paperbark or dragging leaves over it.
After reading Professor Kaplan's book, I recognise the cranky, pecking behaviour to other magpies as defending their territory against intruders. Two younger magpies tried to join the group but were refused and eventually driven away. Interestingly enough, they happily coexist with a family of butcherbirds. It is so precious to see all ten birds lined up, waiting for their bit of mince. The youngest butcherbird refuses to give way to the magpies and will sit on the mince squawking loudly until they give up with the intimidation act. Since I feed them in turn, much like their Mum, I think they are pretty confident they won’t miss out.
They are very observant and intelligent. They have worked out that if the roller door is open I am here. Daily they have watched me walk down the aisle to the back and return with mince. If I am in the office and not at the desk by the roller door, they will come looking for me down the aisle. One adventurous fellow climbed over a box, stuck his head around the corner into the office and called out to let me know they were waiting for me.
Our pallet racking goes to the ceiling and we have a huge freestanding aluminium ladder for the top shelves. The magpies enjoy perching on the steps. One in particular gets on the highest step and waits for me to walk past. He glides down and goes just over the top of my head. I have never thought of his actions as swooping or threatening. He also does this when we walk to the garden – flies as close as he can without hitting me. They are hardly going to bite the hand that feeds them. Instead, I find this action more of an act of affection or pleasure/excitement.
I have lived in Australia for ten years and I must admit my introduction to magpies was not pleasant. I got a sharp peck to the head when I unknowingly wandered too close to a nest. It amazes me that such a fierce weapon can gently take the smallest bit of mince from my fingertip. They are incredible birds and do not waste a thing.