My sentinel bird: following the magic flight of the magpies

Spring. Swooping season. Time for articles about magpies in attack mode. I have seen the terrifying images already, of the magpie approaching someone’s head at high speed.

But in my mind and heart, magpies are the birds that remind me of my father.

When they visit, I try to sing their song to them: burdle-durdle-dup. I watch their heads tilt, they turn to survey me, and then they sing back. They are my sentinel birds: they keep watch and stake a claim.

A sign warning of magpie attacks.

A sign warning of magpie attacks.

At the beach shack, when we are singing, more maggies often join us from beyond the tea trees. They are always at the gate when we arrive, heralding us in; they sing to us each morning we are there; and as we leave, the magpie family appears from the perimeters. They stake out their claim to the property again, as we turn right under the gum tree and sweep away down the hill. It's as if dad has seen us onto and off the block.

That’s one of the magic things about magpies: they turn up, like some kind of portal. And when they do, they pick me up, fly me away with their song, lift me onto their flight path and transmit me to the memories of my father.

In a media poll on the most popular bird of 2017, magpies (Gymnorhina tibicen) were the winner, with nearly 20,000 votes. They are most closely related to butcher birds and currawongs, and are evolved from many thousands of species of songbirds. "They swoop, they carol, they love to be fed. Everyone loves (or hates) a magpie," the voting platform said.

Sure, the blue wren is pretty, the white ibis and laughing kookaburra are gorgeous, but the marvellous magpie took out the title. There is something about the magpie’s manner and intensity: strong, intimidating, beautiful and powerful. Plus they really do have a killer song.

The sentinel bird.

The sentinel bird.

Stories of swooping magpies get a good run at this time of year, though it’s only a small percentage of male birds that get aggressive during nesting season (9 per cent, according to one study) and only within 100-150 metres of the nest. They are more likely to swoop speeding bike riders or people waving umbrellas than a person they know.

I have heard that the best form of protection from swooping magpies is to get to know the birds and gain their trust; make eye contact with them and let them take in your face. Then, well, you just walk on by. Carefully, of course, and at a distance. Once they know you, they don’t see you as a threat. It says something about them–they seek connections, surround themselves with family, and build themselves safe homes.

But it’s not just the avian aspect that draws me to these birds. My father barracked for Collingwood, the Magpies, and had been to every Grand Final they played in his lifetime. On the morning of the 2010 Grand Final, when dad was too sick to come and watch his Maggies play, a magpie flew down and hung around my garden, singing a few lines. It seemed to be waiting for something.

The next week, after the draw, it was the replay, and dad had recovered enough to come to the game. A magpie was outside when we went to pick my father up, strutting on the nature strip. The Pies went on to win the premiership! The Magpie Army has flown high on that win for a while now; another, bigger family story about transformation and joy.

The victorious Magpies of 2010.

The victorious Magpies of 2010.

A few years ago, as I flew home from the other side of the world, racing across datelines to get back to see my dying dad, I chanced upon a quote about a species of magpie in a magazine.

"Magpies, formally dressed in black, are one of the few birds that hold funerals. When a magpie dies, fellow magpies squawk at high volume – encouraging others from the surrounding area to rush to the scene. Researchers have found that magpies gather around – and fall silent for a few seconds – conducting a wake of sorts for their lost friend."

We didn’t make it home in time. Dad died in a hospital as we made our transcontinental flight.

At the funeral, no other birds make a visit, but there the magpies are. Not just one, but a family, a cheer squad. They strut on the lawn’s edges, emerging from the gums of Wattle Park. Squawking, then silent. At the cremation the next day, they hop and fly beside the hearse, carrying dad to the end.

A 1942 painting of a magpie by Albert Sublet, the author's great-grandfather.

A 1942 painting of a magpie by Albert Sublet, the author’s great-grandfather.

Afterwards, at the cafe, a magpie appears on the branch above my head, and just sits there. Then it moves to a fence nearby, and surveys me; comes closer, for comfort, and stays near my feet; perches on the back of a cafe chair a few feet away; flies back to the fence, just waiting.

My sentinel bird. My singing portal. I feel I have a sort of pact with this magpie. It moves a bit further away, towards the sweeping, circular cemetery driveway. Looks back, to reassure me, then flies away.

Each time I see a magpie, I am swept up in the force of memory, and transmitted across suburbs, parklands and the ether. It stakes a claim for family and for spirits flown away. The magpie swoop does not worry me, for it knows me, and it remembers. As I remember.

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