Breaking Through The Communication Barrier With Birds

by Francesca Doria (British Columbia)
In spite of all our New Year’s wishes, 2008 hadn’t begun well for my sister and I. Our Mum was bone-marrow transplanted and had been through a hard time, and our cat Émile, that had shared half of our lives with his endless care and reassuring love, was about to die of kidney failure. He had held out to help our mother and the two of us, but now he was wearing out, silently fading away. At the time our mother’s house had been restored, my sister and I had lived in until the inner works had started, so we had to move to our own flat where our mum already dwelt.
While I was staying with our mother and Émile, my sister Paola got back to the big house to tidy up and put in order everything. She immediately called me, informing that there was a jay she was feeding every day on my window sill and a pair of magpies building their nest on the top of our secular magnolia tree.
At first I was thrilled: I had always loved those elegant, intelligent, funny and noisy birds, and that news had surpassed my wish. But being in anxious state of mind, I nearly forgot both magpies and the friendly jay, until I came back home along with our mum, Émile and our other four cats.
The magpies were still at work: the male brought branches and other items, the female observed/examined them carefully, tried them out, sometimes discharged them, and he flew back and forth trying to find the best things to fit.
magpie nest in tree
The jay was still coming, curiously watching the new incomers. There also was a couple of large hooded crows, that were the undisputed owners of that territory, from a bird’s point of view.
We came back home on 4th March 2008: Émile made a huge effort to visit once again all the rooms of the house; although many things had changed dramatically (my sister’s room had a different entrance, one of the bathrooms had been rebuilt and much more) he recognized his house, blessed it and stood with us quietly and warmly as he had always done.
On 16th March he was put to sleep: until that day the sky had been beautifully crystalline and blue, the sun had shone bright, the moon at night was big and white in a starry sky, the sea was stunningly navy blue and glittering with sun sparkling, there were breathtaking sunsets. But that day the sky grew dark, and heavy drops of rain began to fall. They got heavier and heavier, like a machine gun; although I was dazed with grief, I couldn’t help thinking of the poor birds outside, especially the pair of magpies, whose nest was under that torrential rain. The female sat on her eggs and never moved; the male brought her food.
I was used to hang balls of fat and seeds, nuts, peanuts, pour sunflower mix and much more for the birds visiting our garden (normally tits, robins, sparrows, finches, collar doves and more), but now we had new, hungry visitors: the crow pair, the jay (which loved our cereal biscuits) and a father who had to provide vital sources of nourishment for his partner and, as a consequence, his children on arrival. He would fly under my sister’s windows and hung holding onto the small bags and balls. One day I looked straight into his black eye: he looked into mine, for a long time, going on picking up plenty of food for his lady. They say that, when you look into a corvid’s eye, you’ll never forget: there’s a whole world in, like looking in a cat’s eyes, and it’s as deep but different. They both have magic in, and I am sure that they are psychic animals.
The rain never stopped for a whole month: we had started to get worried for the chicks in the nest, besides the parents who were forced to stand such a terrible weather. Finally the sun shone again, and spring burst. The magpies had succeeded! We could see them feeding the chicks in the nest. We also realized that the father had a preference for our cereal biscuits too, so I used to put some in an ice-cream plastic container with a handle. One night I forgot to put the biscuits in. At 4.00 in the morning my sister was woken up by a strange noise. She got up to look: in front of her there was the magpie, holding the container in his bill, dragging it backward and forwards like a prisoner asking for breakfast! My sister got closer and, being half-asleep, she forgot the mosquito net and knocked/banged against it! The magpie started to laugh, so my sister told me: he chattered, chak chak chak! He was laughing at me! She said.
As soon as the mother could leave the chicks a bit alone, she joined her partner in finding out funny plays and performances. A neighbour had hung a dreamcatcher with many noisy knick-knacks on it: what a wonderful play for the couple, at 5am! They pulled it each towards a different direction, and you could hear the noise going on, and the excited magpies chattering loud. When I was about to sleep, they arrived on my window sill and suddenly uttered a super noisy CHAK! Then stopped to listen to my (rather ill-disposed, considering the time) reaction.
All neighbours started complaining about the noise of the magpies, and their habit of dropping empty peanuts skins everywhere (which made me laugh, because they had always complained about anything, from leaves on the ground to the cats. That was the magpie revenge!). I realized it was the first time I had laughed after Émile’s departure.
I loved their chattering voices, their sudden teasing, their deep interest in anything we did. They were very polite magpies: when I put some shining stones and crystals for them on the balustrade of the balcony it took two weeks before they decided they might take them away. In turn, one day I found a rose. It was in the magpie’s eating place: I asked Paola why she had cut a rose, and she answered she didn’t at all. To a better look, the rose hadn’t been cut, it had been torn away by a bill. Who could ever be a better partner than a magpie, I thought? Faithful, caring, grateful… even romantic! The fact is that corvids have a sense of beauty, and I’m convinced that magpies are the greatest aesthetes!
But danger lied in ambush. The hooded crows couldn’t tolerate having rivals in their territory, especially considering that it was spring, so they suddenly started attacking the nest. I watched the attack of the male crow (I found out much later how good-natured the female was): a large, beautiful, dark menace swooped down on the nest. While the mother was trying to protect the chicks, the father bravely attacked the crow: it was a breathtaking scene, because the magpie was definitely smaller (I had the impression that they were a young pair), and the crow was older, bigger, stronger and very determined. The fight went on for a while, a chick fell down and smashed on the ground. Finally, the magpie female joined her partner and together they managed to defeat the crow.
Every day the crow  attacked, and everyday magpies fought for their “children”: in the end the crow gave up, having to gather strength to feed his own chick (they also came to pick up peanuts and all the rest). That was the only crow chick I had seen from that pair: they were likely older. But the crow one is another story.
The jay in all that mess had run away and hid. The cats watched amused or alerted. It was a brand new experience for them all, both our “inner” ragdoll cats and the “outer” ones (moggies, rescued stray cats).
At night I felt grief getting sharper in the darkness, being alone with my feelings, but could always count on the other cats care and on the magpies funny company. They slept, but I was glad to know that they were a few meters away, in peace with their offspring.
Watching through the telescope, I could see the chicks moving in the nest. I was eagerly waiting to be a witness at their first flight!
Then a chick fell. I don’t honestly know if it fell or it was pushed, but it did, among our stray cats…
I  ran down the stairs like hell, while the magpies chattered so loud you could hear them miles away: while pulling the brand new glass door I did it so violently as to bang it against my big toe and broke it. The sharp pain made me realize I was alive, contrary to the feeling I had inside!
After a few minutes I managed to stand and hopped after the chick, which, of course, had disappeared. “Topolina got it!” I thought. Our moggies aren’t big hunters at all, but of rats, for they have a big belly (being all neutered and spayed), but there was this small, tabby she-cat that was the biggest hunter of all: she never missed anything.
I was looking around, when Ruggi, son to Topolina, brought me the chick! It was perfectly fine, but for a terrible fright and the shock of the fall. Its parents were chattering so loud as to make me want to put earplugs! The chick wasn’t as beautiful as its parents at all: it was bare but for some feathers on its wings and body and a tail butt, rather stinky and flabby like a hot water bottle. Ruggi was proud of the gift he had brought to me!
I don’t think it was the cat’s meaning of gratify you with a prowl, a gift that’s more a female habit: he just heard the birds cry and ran to rescue, and looked very happy of his mission. He also rescued adult and juvenile blackbirds and sparrows. Honestly, I never saw him running after rats as his relatives did – his mother was a great rat fighter, spending a long time in fascinating moves against rats that were even bigger than her – a quite tiny cat – like mongooses against snakes, and in the end she never failed chocking them.
The pair of magpies had realized that their child was in my hands, so they stopped shouting and kept silent, observing me carefully. I put it into a bird cage with water and food and a blanket, but left it in the terrace, visible to its parents, door open in case they wanted to check or bring food. It was really too young to fly, and I couldn’t climb the tree and put it back in. So I took a painful decision: I called ENPA (the local seat of the National Association for the Animal Protection), put the baby in a box and gave it to a caring guy, promising I would come in a few days to see how it was.


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