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Ready to spread some chaos (Photo: Martyn Seddon/Getty Images; additional design Archi Banal)
Ready to spread some chaos (Photo: Martyn Seddon/Getty Images; additional design Archi Banal)

SocietyJanuary 20, 2024

The magpies ruin everything

Ready to spread some chaos (Photo: Martyn Seddon/Getty Images; additional design Archi Banal)
Ready to spread some chaos (Photo: Martyn Seddon/Getty Images; additional design Archi Banal)

Venetia Sherson ponders what makes some birds lovable and others not.

Earlier this year, I found myself screaming at the heavens. Not weather related, although the relentlessly dripping clouds have been loathsome.

This was about a dogfight in the sky. 

A tūī, one of many settled in our gully, had ventured out at dusk for a last nip of nectar. Or perhaps an insect on the wing. A nearby magpie, sensing a potential threat, attacked.

An aerial dogfight is dangerous and requires speed and carefully executed moves. Thus it was above my head. 

The tūī – itself not averse to fights with other birds – ducked and dived and belly-rolled, its iridescent blue, green and bronze body flashing through the air, ecclesiastical white poi (tuft) like a beacon tracing its path in the fading light. The magpie matched its every move, striking from above and always from behind. When the tūī ducked, the magpie dived. When the tūī tried to zip towards the trees, the magpie cut it off, using its beak and claws to try to injure.

If this was to be a fight to the death I didn’t want to be a witness.

“Get lost, you evil fucker,” I screamed at the magpie. And I lifted a handful of pebbles from the driveway and threw them in the air.

They missed, of course, but both birds flew off in opposite directions. My gentle neighbour popped his head above the fence and smiled. 

Photo: Lea Scaddan/Getty Images

We have many birds at our semi-rural property south of Hamilton. Matuku moana (white-faced heron) nest high in the pine each year, karakata (pheasants) strut among the flaxes, pīwakawaka (fantail) hang out near the rimu and koreke (quail) parents regularly put their babies at risk as they cross the driveway. There are also kākā uhi whero (eastern rosella), brought as caged birds from Australia. Pūkeko come when the tomatoes are ripening. 

Birds are an inspiration to watch. I’m not a twitcher, but I enjoy seeing their seasonal comings and goings, and hearing their chirrups, whistles and warbles. Mostly they live in harmony, happy to have bush to hang out in and plenty of food to go around. 

The magpies ruin everything.

Like colonists, they move through the property, leaving their shit as a warning the land has been taken. Other birds stay clear. In the morning, instead of the “cheep, cheep, cheep” of the pīwakawaka outside my window I hear the raucous “wardle, oodle, ardle” of the magpie. Their air of entitlement knows no bounds. Last week, I caught a youngster in the laundry, pecking at my boot. Still fluffy, but with attitude. It looked at me as if to say, “What’s your problem, woman.” 

I say let’s get rid of the lot. But it raises the question, what makes some birds lovable and others not? 

Pigeons being annoying, probably (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Pigeons are not aggressive, but they are pests. Known universally as “flying ashtrays” or “rats of the sky”, they are seen as scavengers that litter and leave poop everywhere. Fungus found in the soil contaminated by pigeon droppings can cause illness, even death. “Please don’t feed the pigeons” signs abound. The only people who like pigeons (other than Spinoff contributor Asia Martusia King, anyway) are pigeon fanciers, who admire their homing instincts. (There are 36 pigeon clubs in Aotearoa.) At my former workplace, pigeons were culled at night. In the morning, dead birds could be seen in the gutters.

Sparrows are generally unloved. They steal other birds’ food and sit on cafe tables waiting for your crumbs. They also breed fast. Plus they are brown, not an attractive colour unless you are a ruru (morepork). But there is evidence they are on the way out. In Europe, half the population has disappeared in the past four decades due to a reduction in insects, diseases and air pollution. While that is shocking, I don’t expect to see a Givealittle campaign to Save the Sparrow any time soon. 

Geese honking and being aggressive, probably (Photo: Alice Neville)

Geese are not widely liked except by those who breed them for their feathers, meat and eggs. They mate for life, which is endearing, but they are better known for their aggression, especially towards innocent bystanders like walkers or golfers. As a child, I ran backwards from a hissing goose and fell onto a glasshouse, stabbing myself in the thigh, so I have never been a fan. Canada geese, descendants of 50 birds brought to Aotearoa in 1905, are loathed by farmers because they eat and foul the grass. Plus, their honk is hideous. 

Mynas never make the list of best-loved birds. Again, their appearance doesn’t endear them to the public. Stocky and brown with a shiny black head and shoulders, their cry is an annoying chickork-chickork-chickork. They are helpful in consuming some crop pests, but they are most frequently seen beside roadkill, which affects their image. 

Mynas being mynas (Photo: Getty Images)

The starling has its supporters and detractors. I don’t like them because they nest beside our bathroom and kick up a ruckus which guests believe are rats. Among farmers there are both pro and anti-camps. To orchardists they are a pest, but in pastoral areas they are lauded because they prey upon grass grub and other pests. Cattle also like them because they sit on their backs and peck the flies, ticks and lice. 

And lastly seagulls. Loved by children, loathed by picnickers, they can be noisy and aggressive. They also steal food. Fun fact: Apparently, if you eyeball a seagull, it will not approach. A study by English researcher Madeleine Goumas found looking a gull in the eye makes it nervous. “We found that they are less likely to approach food when they are being watched,” she said. Of the 74 birds targeted for the study only 26% were bold enough to touch food. It’s not clear how you should eyeball several gulls at once since they tend to work in packs. 

But what of the birds that are generally loved? Why do we fawn over the ruru, kiwi, kererū, godwit, hoihō (yellow-eyed penguin), kākā, kārearea (New Zealand falcon) and karure (black robin), which all have featured in Forest and Bird’s Bird of the Year. Some are aggressive, some ungainly, others not so pretty.

Research published by the scientific journal PNAS sheds some light. The study sought to determine how different species are valued when it comes to conservation. It found birds with colourful or contrasting plumage, birds that visit bird feeders, and birds labelled as “endangered” or “protected” are all assigned a greater value in the public’s eye. Birds that feature in brand names or as team mascots are highly popular, which explains the overwhelming love for kiwi.

And yet… the magpie has contrasting plumage; it regularly visits homes; it has at least two sports teams named after it: Hawke’s Bay Magpies (rugby) and Manukau Magpies (league). In its homeland, Australia, it is protected and respected. The magpie in Catherine Chidgey’s excellent book, The Axeman’s Carnival, came across as smart and empathetic. 

So it all comes down to brand.

If the magpie gets a good PR manager, its image could be made over. Last year, US comedian and talk show host John Oliver single-handedly transformed the largely unknown “puking bird” pūteketeke to win Bird of the Century in Aotearoa. I hope no one tells him about the magpie.

Keep going!