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the passing of a friend - a part of Beak's Story

When I first moved to Australia, I looked for a house to rent in the mountains. Among my first visitors were two magpies, who we named "Beak" and "Pecker": Beak, because his top beak was slightly broken and missing a small piece at the front tip, and "Pecker" because often when you tried to feed her, she would get excited and miss the food and peck your hand by mistake. "Ouch!" (but more surprising than painful.) Beak, on the other hand, always took whatever food you had to offer, very gently turning his head and beak sideways, always picking up the food carefully and gently, without complaint. Pecker however would talk quite a bit if she wanted more food.

In Australia, magpies are known for aggressive defense of their nest area. While most species of birds will abandon their nests and their young if a human gets too close, magpies will attack. I was amazed one day to see some school kids on bicycles, racing back and forth under a tall tree that had a magpie nest in it. The boys would zoom through the defended area on their bikes while the magpies would swoop down and peck them on their helmeted heads. For the boys, it was a game; for the magpies, it was a necessary defense against what they saw as an enemy, even though their nest was well out of the boys' reach. Interestingly enough, many magpies have stopped this aggressive attacking because they have learned that humans walking meters below their nests are not a danger to them. Some years ago, when people were less respectful of wildlife and often boys would climb trees and take or break eggs, it was a needed action, but nowadays, it would be very unusual for boys to do this. Through education - coming from schools, homes, mass media - people are learning to respect wildlife more, and birds are generally loved and cared for in Australia.

But back to Beak's story..... Even when Beak and Pecker weren't visiting, we could often hear them singing in a kind of responsive chorus which is a characteristic of magpies.

I read that magpies do this kind of singing to establish the boundaries of their territory and will often involve a whole tribe of magpies warbling back and forth, usually to warn an intruder from another tribe or a wandering homeless magpie that they are in another group's space. ("Magpies", Australia's Wildlife Heritage, Rigby Press, Vol 3. pp1238-1243)

Beak came to our house daily, usually with Pecker, but sometimes alone. He would sit quietly and patiently on the porch, occasionally breaking into song. Once I left Australia for two weeks to return to Japan and I wondered if Beak would continue his daily visits when there was no one there to feed him; I thought that he might stop coming altogether, thinking that perhaps I had moved. But sure enough, the day after I returned to my home, Beak flew onto the porch railing and sat waiting for a bit of ground meat.

I was so impressed with his appearance and style which differed in character and style from other birds, even other magpies. He often stood with one foot tucked up and under a wing. Here's a picture and a haiku I wrote for him.


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Beak, a samurai

spirited magpie, waits on

one leg stoically.


Beak and Pecker started acting differently from usual about a year ago and we didn't know what was going on. Pecker didn't come for a few weeks and sometimes Beak would take some food and instead of eating it, he would carry it off, always in the same direction. A few weeks later, Pecker started coming again, and she, too, would take food away. We figured out that they had some babies and were taking food back to the nest for them. We later confirmed our idea in the book mentioned above; that only Pecker sat on the eggs, and Beak would get food for her at this time, but after the eggs hatched, both birds would feed the newborns.

We hoped that the young magpies would come to our house, and we were so happy when one day we heard loud chattering coming from the porch. It was as though family had arrived for a visit! There were Beak and Pecker with two tall magpies, mostly brown and gray instead of black but already as tall as their parents. We named them "Noppo 1" and "Noppo2" because they were so tall and thin. ("Noppo" means "tall" in Japanese.) Noppo 1 & 2 would follow Beak and Pecker and cry until they were fed. In a month or so, Noppo 1 and 2 stopped coming to our house, probably joining another tribe in another territory. We missed them, but were happy that Beak and Pecker continued their daily visits.

We watched Beak and Pecker interacting with their children and other birds. There's a lot of bullying both among the different bird groups and within some of the bird groups, but magpies don't seem to bother other birds except when they are attacked. Within their family, everyone seems to take good care of each other, but within the group there is some aggression when other magpies try to enter into their group or even their territory.

Shortly after I had taken the above picture of Beak and written the poem about him standing "stoically" on one leg, he came to our house with a badly injured leg. He was only able to stand on one leg! We could see the injured leg, but couldn't tell what the problem was. We made calls to various bird organizations and were told: "If he seems to be surviving, it's better to leave him alone. If he can't survive, then catch him and take him to a vet, and if his leg can be fixed, then we'll look after him until he can go off on his own." Because it was breeding season, the Bird Rescue groups were very busy, getting hundreds of calls each day to come and pick up young birds who had fallen out of their nests or hit by cars. These volunteers go out and pick up birds from all over and, if possible, care for them until they are strong enough to go out on their own. Amazingly enough, every animal doctor in the country is required to take care of wild life free of charge! So if we decided to "rescue" Beak and take him to a vet, they would have checked him over and if he could be saved, they would call a Rescue Group to come and take care of him.

We couldn't imagine catching Beak and putting him in a box. Surely he would be so upset by this. And there was always the possibility that a vet would decide that Beak's leg couldn't be fixed and possibly euthanize him. But after watching Beak carefully and feeding him fortified foods for days, we decided that he was making it on his own. He hobbled around on one leg and swayed precariously in the strong winds that came during this season. We imagined him caring for Pecker, who had stopped visiting and was preparing to hatch new eggs, and having a hard time on windy or rainy nights. Still he came daily. Slowly his leg got stronger and he was able to put it down gingerly, but he never was able to walk normally. Soon Pecker and Noppo 3 and 4 appeared with Beak (see picture of Noppo 3, only a few months old, with Pecker - on our left - and Beak on the right.) You can see that he's putting some balance on his left leg. We were happy to see that he was recovering.


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But nature has a great sense of irony. Shortly after taking this picture, Beak disappeared. Pecker started to come to the house with another male. We've never seen Beck again. From our reading about magpies, we learned that each tribe has one male leader, but if that leader is old or weak, then another bird from another tribe will replace him. It seems that Beak either died or has been defeated in fight and is now living elsewhere alone, with no tribe. Of course, romantically we prefer to imagine him living alone, like a ronin (wandering samurai with no master), like Kurosowa's Yojimbo recovering quietly somewhere before returning to his own life.

Although Beak has passed out of our life, we are very grateful for our contact with him. Perhaps it's strange to call him a "friend", But what is a "friend". Like any definition, it's a human invention created and used by us differently in different situations. We say: "I'd like you to meet my friend, xxxx". Or "Oh, I know xxxx. She's a friend of mine" about people we have a wide range of relationships with. We never think about a chair or glass as invention because these objects are so much a part of our lives, but like words, they are merely people's ideas put into form and can be used in millions of ways, many still unthought of.

For us, Beak was a friend in that we waited for him to visit us and we watched and learned from him. He gave us much pleasure and we believe that coming to see us had some kind of meaning for him as well.

It's important for humans to live with nature, don't you think? In cities, what kind of contact do we have with wildlife? Birds are often thought of as pests -oh, those dirty pigeons, for example. Children growing up in the cities, as kids do these days, are missing a lot. As adults -parents, teachers, friends - we can do our best to see that kids have chances to come into a variety of contact with nature. It's important for them AND for us!

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