The magpies used to greet me as I arrived at the beach shack, and as we left they’d re-assert their place once more, striding back into the front garden. But they seem to have moved on down the road these days. In their place, we have the bullet-proof bodies of the currawongs, beady-eyed, tough-beaked, sleek-winged, with their flash of white at the tail. They clatter like earthmoving machines on the tin roof and watch fiercely from the gutters.
They might be black and white, but they’re not my magpies. It seems our magpie family has moved on down the hill, and closer to the ocean, scared away by the bigger birds.
I try not to take it personally, but I can’t help it. I want the magpies back, sharing some land, as part of my family. My love of magpies is not based on any ornithological knowledge or scientific curiosity. My attraction is relational: an interaction of beings and emotions; a sense of connection as to how to place myself in the world. They pick me up and sweep me away into family memories, they transport me across the ether to connect with my father; they are a portal to worlds beyond.
Come back maggies! I walk the streets to reconnect with them, stopping to make eye contact; I take off my hat and glasses so they can recognise me. I find myself warbling and waiting, watching them peck the earth and thrust their throats skyward to sing.
Urban ecologist Darryl Jones writes: “Given that most adult magpies, once they settle down with a mate, almost never leave their territory, it is highly likely that they know and recognise all the people that they share this space with.” Perhaps it’s recognition I’m after; a sense of who I am and where I fit in?
Beyond walking the streets, I go searching for them in old picture books at op-shops, and in the children’s stories of my great-grandfather. In the 1940s, Albert Sublet wrote of the magnificent magpies taking shelter in the highest trees to avoid predators, rain and floods.
“The Magpies chose the tallest tree/That anywhere their eyes could see/Where they’d be safe from every harm/Their nest they built secure and warm.” Maggie’s song is described as being a melody so plaintive and soft “it seemed as if the moon so round/Had its bright beams surcharged with sound.”
In Colin Thiele’s 1974 book Magpie Island, he writes of the magpie: “He sings not merely for mating and social purposes, but for the sheer joy of it. The utter exuberance of life, and the magic and wonder and beauty of the earth.” John Gould, Thiele writes, was said to have rejected attempts to describe the magpie’s song, “because it was so beautiful that it defied human description”.
In his opening paragraph, Thiele writes: “A magpie can be happy or sad: sometimes so happy that he sits on a high, high gum tree and rolls the sunrise around in his mouth like beads of pink light; and sometimes so sad that you would expect the tears to drip off his beak.” In the story, the magpie finds himself alone, marooned on a far-flung island. Blown there in a storm, the magpie survives. He is resolute. But after loneliness, connection, love, and subsequent mourning, the magpie is without song. He finds there is no reason to carrol when he’s all alone.
I’ve been singing in a choir lately, for reasons of joy and connection. Research shows how community singing promotes connections and good health in humans; maybe this is another connection I feel with these birds? At times I find myself crying as I sing, with the sheer beauty of words and music. Like songbirds weaving melodies, there is loss, warning, mourning and connection. There is lamentation. There is joy and beauty and celebration in song and in life. There are tears dripping from my beak.
With over 20,000 votes in the last Guardian Australian bird of the year competition, it’s clear the magpie’s song is special to many. The author Kate Cole-Adams loves magpies: “That song makes me know I’m home,” she says. My friend writes to me of her husband at his father’s gravesite, “asking his dad for a sign that all was OK … Out of nowhere a group of magpies flew low and were singing all around us.”
More and more, when I see magpies now, I am recognising a part of me, as a member of a larger family, dispersed and sometimes displaced, but trying to connect. They are not just a portal to my memories, but a port in a storm; a place to feel at home. A place to be recognised and seen.
Thiele’s book closes with the sentinel magpie, a symbol of hope and strength. “All around was the vast, violent wilderness of the sea and the mountainous storm clouds. Solitude. Isolation. Loneliness. Menace. But Magpie was there, and alive … defying all the storm.”
Last time I was at the shack, the rains came. The magpies came closer, to bathe in the puddles left in our driveway. Close enough that I’m sure they must recognise me. So close, they’ve almost come home.
• Anna Sublet is a freelance writer