I respect most wildlife, even the pest species. Yet I find it hard to love the magpie, even as an adversary. Its cowardly ‘sneak-thief’ demeanour and bullying of lesser birds puts it high on my watch list. Over the past 40 years the British magpie population has multiplied ten-fold and is estimated now to be close on two million birds. Claims by national bird protection organisations that this explosion bears no relationship to songbird decline is ridiculous and naive. We have seen them in action around smaller birds nests too often, in both garden and field. Like the grey squirrel, magpies enjoy the sanctuary of urban parks and gardens where they can feed and breed unchallenged. Consequently, as fast as the shooting conservationist can eradicate breeding pairs, the voids are filled swiftly by this urban over-spill; for as we all know, Nature abhors a vacuum.
Magpies raise just one brood a year and it’s a large one, the female laying from five to eight eggs. Watching a pair nest building is an education and perhaps the only time I feel any empathy for these birds. Their industry is phenomenal, flying from ground to tree thousands of times over many days to weave a huge domed fortress and line it with mud. For some reason, the pair will often half-build a nest then abandon it and start again in another tree. A trait shared by the tiny wren but in the wrens case, the polygamous male sometimes builds a few nests and chooses females to occupy them. With magpies (who are monogamous), they both build. Which sex makes the decision to move is open to question? To form the arch over the nest, they will bend and break long, supple living twigs from surrounding trees using their bill as a tool. An amazing spectacle but an indication of how strong that beak is. Once the eggs are laid, the birds alternate the brooding, the male sitting while the female feeds. Magpies breed early, for a reason. An evolutionary necessity. Usually, by the time their fledglings are abroad it will be May. The songbirds, many of which will have travelled thousands of miles to breed here, will only just be hatching chicks. Like its cousin, the carrion crow, the magpie will have been training its dark, beady eye across its nesting domain and will have marked every movement. It has seen the greenfinch dragging moss into the blackthorn hedge. The blackbird weaving its comfortable bowl in the poor cover of the azalea. It has watched the partridge prepare her shallow scrape. The hen pheasant creeping into her grassy bank. The prospect of new life (better still, the prospect of life just emerged) will excite the magpie and its now maturing family. They are avian ‘muggers’. Watching and waiting outside a natural supermarket to rob the small, the weak and the vulnerable.
They are cowards too. You will never see a magpie push a pheasant from her nest. Nor even a feeble chaffinch. They will wait for the parents to leave then sneak in and burgle … or encourage its young to do so. I’ve even watched them then steal the proceeds from their own young. The ‘Fagin’ of British birds …..
An extract from my latest book … “Hunting and Fieldcraft for Shotgun and Rifle”
Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, June 2019