By Gretchen Wehmhoff
Joe and I awakened one spring morning to a chaotic, cacophony outside our bedroom window. About 20 magpies squawked, fluttered and dove at an object on the ground in the backyard. It was a hawk and it had taken a magpie. The magpies admonished the hawk for the strike and continued to mob it verbally until it was apparent the young bird gripped in its claws was no longer moving.
Abruptly, the birds watched in near silence as if honoring the death of their conventicle member. One bird approached the body as the hawk maintained its grip. I thought maybe it was going to take a bite, but later learned that it is not unusual for magpies to have some sort of funeral for their mate or member.
I’ve seen that before. At a home in downtown Anchorage I witnessed a large, mature magpie calling over the body of a fallen partner. I moved in for a closer look and saw the brilliant colors on the quiet bird that we miss as they fly and dance in the trees. Vibrant teal and purple feathers on its wings caught the afternoon sun, accenting the deep black and pure white we identify with the long-tailed birds. A light breeze fluttered the shorter, downy feathers. The creature was beautiful. Dead, but mesmerizing in its last pose on the lawn.
Above it on a short chain link fence the mate seemed distraught. Magpies hang with their partners, breed and travel together. This was a vigil of a lost love.
Folks call magpies thieves, camp robbers and scavengers. How very human of them. We are all so alike on this planet.
Our yard, surrounded by conifers and deciduous trees, hosts a variety of birds over the year. Each spring our robin returns – mornings are filled with the chatter of chickadees, juncos and thrush. A week or so later a lone hawk hangs out for a few days, then moves on. Towards the end of summer a Steller’s Jay rests on our back porch for a bit on its way south. In the winter it is a busy village of magpies, ravens and eagles.
This summer is different. We saw our robin once. Only once.
In the trees next to our yard a pair of sharp-shinned hawks set up camp. Instead of moving on as usual, they stayed. Our airspace filled with loud, sharp screeching, and eventually obnoxious, calls as they defined their territory and lured predators away from the nest.
We never saw the robins again. The morning birds slipped by in a very early flock then moved on. It was just the two hawks. Then there were four.
A group of hawks is a cauldron, a kettle or a tribe – sounds like a stew, but these hawks had set stake on a new home and the rest of our birds disappeared. I like to think they moved on, but I’m sure a few became meals.
The parents took turns setting watch on the tall spruce thirty feet from our driveway. A few weeks ago a storm blew in. Branches tumbled from our birch stand and the tall spruce moved like a carnival ride with the hawk clinging to the branch, moving with the bows as rain started to fall. The storm intensified and I moved inside, concerned for the hawk.
Watching Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color as a child, I was engrossed in the educational animal shows and playful narration that made the creatures seem so much like us – until the fox, wolf or lion showed up. I was a fan of the prey – the rabbit, the deer, the mouse. I’d watch silently, holding my breath, hoping the rabbit saw the fox. When the predator pursued its prey I panicked, screaming at the TV: “Run! Run! It’s right behind you. Ruuuun!”
Disney usually didn’t show the gory truth, and the fox, “moved on to find other prey.” I was happily and naively satisfied that the rabbit, deer or mouse lived a long life after the trauma. Nature has always been too tough for me.
Back in the yard, the hawks had survived the storm and were back to screeching. I sat in my lawn chair and tried to talk to them, sometimes whistling. It works with ravens.
Next to their tree was a dead, beetle-killed spruce in the neighbor’s yard by our fence. This became the hawk family’s new lookout – until a group of magpies showed up.
Magpies gather in parliaments, tribes or groups aptly called a mischief. Sometimes a murder as they are related to the raven. In my car, leaving for an appointment, I paused to watch.
The sky looked like a “Top Bird” movie. I didn’t know who to root for – my resident hawks or the magpies that might become their dinner – but that wasn’t what played out.
Two magpies dived at then flew alongside a hawk until the predator veered off, away from the area.
Four or five magpies landed near the top of the dead tree, still claimed by the other hawk. A small magpie dropped to a branch 10 feet lower and moved close to the trunk – almost as if instructed. I noticed that the neck was narrow and the bird seemed to not have filled out. It was a chick.
I was late to my appointment, but put the car in park to watch.
The magpies occupied a circle of branches below the hawk. One bird flew at the hawk, backed off and flew at it again. Outnumbered, the hawk gave up its perch to the black and white tribe and flew off.
As I pulled away, I observed seven or eight young magpies feeding in the neighbors’ yards. Normally I would worry about them being so exposed to the hawks, but the adult members of their tribe had cleared the way for feeding. The chicks appeared unaware of the “bird fight” above them as adult magpies kept watch.
I left for my dentist appointment knowing I had a good reason for being late and curious about what I would find upon my return.
The next day the magpies and the hawks came back.
I rarely see all four hawks anymore. I think they are out learning to hunt and only come back for family dinners to squawk their successes. The magpies have a significant number in their parliament and fly freely within the branches of the birch, cottonwood and willows. For some reason they all want to stay. We have magpies that stay in our yard for the winter. Maybe this is the family.
There seems to be a rotation of sorts on the old, dead tree. One day I’ll see two hawks at the top while the magpies spread out in the trees across the street. The next day the magpies will be in the tree – maybe while the hawks are hunting.
I hear this particular type of hawk will migrate south, but some stay. I hope they fly off for the winter months so our magpies, ravens and chickadees can return. And if they stay, I am confident that the large winter magpies and ravens will negotiate a deal the way only nature can.