Crows A disheartening of crows gathered in winter fields. Naked trees from disused rail road tracks, dark stains on white linen. In trust we are led through this stark terrain, senses soaked in sparse liquor, a hungry air tasting our flesh, a murmuring of hardened, thirsting soil. They rise, wheeling, across the sky, black flecks of mortality in widening whites of eyes. ©AndrewJamesMurray
So, the saga of the life-and-death struggle began at 6.30 in the morning. First up, I showered and came downstairs, opening the blinds to see this in our front garden:
If you look carefully, you will be able to make out a magpie on the grass. It’s stood beside a state of the art water feature, or, as you might better know it, a plastic Tupperware container. I put it out weeks ago during our unexpected heatwave, to provide drinking water for the birds. It’s gratifying to see it being visited and used by the local wildlife. I kinda expect an OBE nomination, you know?
Around an hour later I looked out to see presumably the same magpie in definitely the same position. Later my wife came down, preparing to go to work. “See that magpie-it’s been there now for nearly two hours.”
I shrugged. It’s times like this I wish I had Chris Packham on speed dial. “Maybe it’s defending its territory, staking a claim for this much needed water source.”
“What every bird wants,” my wife replied, “an old butty box!”
She left for work, the magpie stayed for the morning. It was only when a joiner arrived, due to do some work for us, that I began to suspect something was wrong with it.
“Are you sure it’s okay?” he asked.
I tried to find out. Several times I slowly approached it, getting within a foot or so before it would hop beneath the shrubbery by the wall. From this, it was the joiner that prompted the ensuing struggle: “If it can’t fly a cat or other maggies will get it. It will be on my mind all day.”
I looked at the motionless bird. A new back gate, shed door, decking in the back and a guilty conscience, all included in the price.
I tried a few more times to test it, seeing if I could provoke it to take to the sky without me racing forward and giving it a heart attack, all to no avail. It’s tail feathers, essential for balance when flying, appeared to be damaged.
Not sure what to do, I went back inside but kept a watchful eye on it through the window. Then the first cat turned up.
I shot outside and chased my feline foe back out of the gate and resumed my vigil. Within a couple of minutes the same cat returned and I chased it back out. It was like a Tom and Jerry cartoon.
Thats it, I thought, I can’t let it be killed on my watch. Time to call in the experts. I still didn’t have Chris Packham on speed dial, and Bill Oddie had blocked me on Facebook when I got carried away in my wasp-sting descriptions, so I rang the RSPCA. They said they would send an officer around, but in the meanwhile could I catch the bird in a box or something? I explained that whenever I got near to it it fled to a sharp-thorned bunker, so they asked me to keep watching it to make sure it didn’t disappear before they arrived.
How long was I to wait though? I couldn’t stand at the front door for four or five hours. And I just knew that, as soon as I went indoors, two cats would carry out a daring attack in a pincher movement, forcing me to shamefully profess my dereliction of duty and death of my ward to the joiner.
The RSPCA were good though, and I was next informed that an officer was on the way around. Soon I would be passing the bird onto them and be able to relax.
The magpie had been rooted to the same spot in my garden for the last ten hours, but then, of course, when the RSPCA van was twenty minutes away, the damn thing decided to go walkabout.
It crossed the lawn to the gardenpath, heading determinedly for the gate.
“Whoa! No-where you going?!”
Throwing a deaf ‘un to my desperate pleas, it went up the path, through the gate, a few yards up the street and then through next door’s gate into their garden, with me close behind, trying to stop it with ineffectual calls in my stern parent’s voice.
I had to catch it, but, with nothing to hand, I ran back inside to get the perfect wildfowl-and-small-animal-snaring contraption: our student’s pink laundry basket.
SPOILER ALERT: here is the magpie in our student’s pink laundry basket.
Clutching the basket, I ran back to my neighbour’s garden, my emerging neighbour Rob and my son James having cornered it behind a small rose bush. I went to the opposite side and on the count of three between us we flushed it out. It bounded across the garden like a Velociraptor in Jurassic Park. It got as far as our dividing garden fence and I caught it in the perfect spot, shaded from the summer sun. It could remain there now safely beneath the basket until the RSPCA officer arrived.
I breathed a sigh of relief and went back indoors. Imagine the RSPCA officer coming all this way only to find we’d lost the bird. Then I heard my neighbour’s partner Pam shouting: the RSPCA inspector was coming all this way and we’d lost the bird.
Loving soul that she is, she’d soaked some bread in water to place beneath the basket for it to feed on and the magpie had saw its opportunity and took it. Pam should have known: in Jurassic Park raptors can even use door handles.
And so the chase began again in earnest. This time it picked some denser undergrowth at the far side of the garden. We tried a pincer movement of our own. I climbed over my next door-but-one neighbour’s fence to come at it from behind, while Pam and James waded through prickles and twigs to force it back out into the open.
“You’ve not let that bird get out have you?” Rob called from their doorstep.
“Don’t ask stupid questions!” spat back his sweating partner. After five minutes of cut and thrust the magpie emerged, running around the garden like a bantam chicken. We ran, we pounced, we missed. The magpie went back into the undergrowth.
At this point I recieved another message: our rescuing RSPCA officer was seven minutes away!
We employed the same tactics again, and, after several desperate minutes the magpie emerged again, running across the garden with us all in pursuit. It shot past Pam and Rob’s open door (it would have been preferable for us if it it had gone inside, door handle savvy or not) and turned into their back garden, leading us still on our merry dance. A startled Rob stepped aside as I blundered into the back with the basket held high above my head like some crazy laundryman, only to see the bird squeeze through the privets into my back garden.
James slapped his forehead. I slapped the basket. Rob didn’t slap Pam. It was fast becoming the Keystone Kops.
Back through the back gate and over the front fence I went, our fugitive in sight, but as I advanced on it it discovered the only hole in the whole of our fence, the whole of our perimeter, and slipped through into yet another neighbour’s back garden.
“That’s it!” Pam declared, “it’s gone!”
I rushed to the new dividing fence, tiptoeing to peer over the five foot something high panel. Of course, this neighbour had a cat. Of course, this cat was now in their garden, thinking all its Christmases had come at once. It was poised two feet away from the magpie, both staring at each other, motionless in a deathly confrontation.
“Pam, there’s a cat!” I shouted.
“No! Has it got it?”
“It’s about to!”
Pam’s head appeared over the opposite fence just as the cat pounced. They rolled over the ground together, hissing and spitting, red in tooth and claw.
“I can’t watch!” Pam declared.
“Don’t let it eat it!” James implored.
Helpless, I raised the basket high above my head and the cat retreated, slightly. When all else fails, fall back on a fearsome pink basket. While Pam ran around to knock on the front door of this house, I tried to intimidate the predator again with the basket and a yodelled cry. The cat came again.
At this point the house-owner and Pam emerged from the back door, the former grabbing the cat and the latter grabbing the bird.
A bird in the hand is worth two dead neighbours in the bush.
Forthwith back to my front garden, after James had a little stroke of its chest, we put the magpie slowly, CAREFULLY, back beneath the basket. We all emitted a loud sigh of relief. At that moment the van pulled up.
“I’d never have forgiven myself,” Pam said, “if that cat had killed it. I’m going inside well away from the thing!”
“Can we keep it as a pet?” James asked. “We’ve got a joiner here who can build a cage.”
What do you reckon my answer was?
James stepped forward for a closer look, stood on the rim of the basket causing it to tip up like happens with a garden rake!
Luckily the magpie must have been subdued by its encounter with the moggie (I’m thinking now I should have called this post The Maggie And The Moggie) and didn’t move as I pounced forward and dropped the basket over the bird again.
“James-keep away! Please-keep away!!!”
The officer came into the garden and expertly took the bird from us. She said it was one of this year’s brood and pointed out a wound to its chest along with the damaged tail feathers we’d noticed, probably from another skirmish with a cat.
It had been ‘kill or be killed’ while I’d been buttering my toast.
As the saga drew to a close, I requested that no sad messages of the bird’s fate be sent to us, if, after all this, you know, it didn’t make it.
And so, for the creature’s own health and for my beleaguered sanity, the magpie was taken away.
It was then, as the van turned the corner at the end of the street, that I saw the blackbird, standing next to the Tupperware box.
I’ve just been watching a magpie hiding a biscuit beneath a leaf. I’ve got kids like that.
Though it may be August, and the sky (fleetingly) blue, these local starlings have already donned their winter plumage and started gathering together. Maybe a sign of a cold, hard winter? I don’t know, but as a winter lover I can live in hope.
Looking up at them, the words of Dire Straits came to mind:
And the birds up on the wires and the telegraph poles
They can always fly away from this rain and this cold
You can hear them singing out their telegraph code
All the way down the Telegraph Road
They can always fly away from this rain and this cold. Or they can stay, if they want, in their winter plumage, hustling me for chips on frosty grey days.
Sunday morning. Palm Sunday morning.
Reading outside in the sun.
Slowly the town awakens, quite some time after the world had awoken.
Blackbirds are nesting in the bushes that border the garden; jackdaws in the tall chimney pots.
All unnoticed by the people returning from the shops with their six packs to greet the sun with, or driving around the estate on their noisy quad bikes.
Flaubert comes to mind: ‘Civilisation is a conspiracy against poetry’.
Maybe I’m getting old. Given to moan a lot.