A Small Conventicle of Magpies

I’ve now been in Calgary for the full year to which i self-committed as the minimum. At the time, twelve months – many of them frigid – seemed like a lengthy period, but of course reflecting on it after the fact it feels otherwise. Nevertheless, this seems a logical moment for a searching and fearless inventory followed by either a committment to persistence, or a hasty escape.

Searching i’m good at – fearless not so much. So instead, i’m going to procrastinate in a cowardly manner and talk about magpies.

It’s been almost eight months since i wrote positively about my initial experiences of Calgary. If you recall, number eight on the list was the locally-ubiquitous Pica hudsonia, the Black-billed magpie. At the time, i wrote “[…] magpies in Calgary are like crows in Vancouver, but less annoying.”

Magpies, i will admit, can be experienced as a little annoying to many, including my octogenarian neighbour Bob, who live-traps grey squirrels and releases them near Cochrane, but shoots magpies with his .22 because he doesn’t like the noise they make. Why he cheerfully tolerates that fucking yappy satanic terrier on his opposite perimeter i don’t know.

This spring we had two birds’ nests on the property, one belonging to robins and the other to magpies. The robins built a nest under a permanent awning behind the house, wedged between a timber and a tin eavestrough. Their first attempt failed to adhere before the mud dried and crashed to the pavement below, but they built another right next to the old spot, which stuck. They laid five eggs in it, sat for three days, and then abandoned the nest.

The magpie nest i can’t actually see, but based on local activity, i believe it’s high in a conifer on the property line. There has been much coming and going, but not a significant increase in magpie chatter. Until Sunday.

That’s when the fledglings suddenly left the nest.

Juvenile magpie At first i thought one of the juveniles was injured, or had been hatched with a deformity. It hopped around my backyard and seemed to be trying to fly using only one wing, and lacked the magpie’s characteristic long tail. Meanwhile, it screamed repeatedly while its parents-apparent flew back and forth across the yard screaming back.

When i approached, it didn’t flee with any vigour, it just hopped onto a pot that contains my poor, snow-stunted basil plant. When i stuck out my hand it climbed on to my fingers. I stuck it in a nearby lilac tree and left it to its own devices. I briefly considered (a) keeping it as a pet (corvids are very intelligent), (b) taking it to an animal shelter, or (c) wringing its neck. In the end, i decided it best to let nature take its course.

Later in the day, i saw it hopping around the yard again. But then i saw another juvenile a few feet away from the first with a similar inability to work its wings with any practical efficiency. Either the wing defect was hereditary and affected the whole clutch, or – more likely – what i was witnessing was simply an adolescent magpie stage-of-life process. This is likely how they learn to scavenge and fly.

Magpie - Photo by Vitalii Khustochka

Adult magpie (photo by Vitalii Khustochka)

Today i’ve been home so i watched them quite a bit. There appear to be three young, only one of whom seems to understand that you have to flap both wings in tandem to gain more than a foot of altitude. The other two hop around the garden and dash across the street in the manner of road-runners, or tiny emus. Occasionally, they make laughingly futile attempts to re-join their parents by climbing the trunks of trees. This evening, they managed to hop up branches to the top of a potentilla, so perhaps they’ll survive another night. Fortunately, outdoor cats are a rarity in Calgary, thanks to harsh winters and plentiful coyotes.

During the daylight hours it’s clearly going to be non-stop screaming between the three young and the two parents until the young learn to fly, get eaten, or are run over by cars. I’ll be glad when one of these happens and i can resume reading without interruption, for i’m starting to get the urge to borrow Bob’s .22.


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hedley bontano


  1. Pat on July 1, 2015 at 09:58

    Great read. We had, for three weeks, a family of crows to watch and hear. The nest we saw being built early in the spring when the leaves on the trees were few and far between. Later outside our window on the telephone wire and in the trees a couple of crows were cawing up a storm. Back and forth. Back and forth. In Vancouver there were signs, in certain locations, posted to warn unsuspecting pedestrians of dive bombing crows. I could never quite figure out why they swooped some people and not others. I’m sure there was method to their madness.

    I watched and saw how the two crows and I guess one was female and the other male communicated, stood guard and so on. One Friday I came home from work and the two crows were on the roof – they had cornered a young racoon. They were mad as hell (different sounding caws for different occasions) and the young racoon despite claws like switchblades cowered.

    I never did see any young crows and as suddenly as the show began it ended. The two crows are gone and we are back with the usually crows. I did love the reactions of the pedestrians walking past with the flapping of their arms and expletives and human parents protecting their young. Me, well I didn’t walk the front of the condo for three weeks thinking it best to give them their space.


  2. Kris on July 1, 2015 at 11:04

    Wonderful observations. At least they’re not
    dive-bombing you like the hummingbirds here at
    the Point. This was very entertaining!