The Gift of the Magpie – Small Blessings

This is the story of how we begin to remember
This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein
After the dream of falling and calling your name out
These are the roots of rhythm
And the roots of rhythm remain

Paul Simon, Under African Skies

The wind was cold and blowing from the north, the rain hard, falling at an angle that would have been blinding had I been walking on the street. I was under the shelter of the boat house. There the rain and wind could not touch me. Darkness was beginning to envelop the small boat house and shadows came and hid playfully around the lake and amid the trees. It was there that I remembered.

Every morning she finds me at the boat house, sanding this or scraping that, working on something or other. A hug, a kiss on the cheek and then…”Daddy can we go sing to the magpies now?” And off we would go down the hill, past the old boat house to the forest of oak and pecan planted long ago by my grandfather. There we would sit on an old fallen log and wait and watch. Then we would begin to see them. First one then two then so many you couldn’t count them without losing your place. She would sing to them …”good morning birds, good morning trees”. I would tell her all I knew about them, these yellow billed beauties, how they forage on the ground, mainly eating insects how they especially like grasshoppers and acorns and in the fall and winter they eat the fruit.

One day we saw one lying on the ground, too still. Its’ fellows were walking up to it offering a peck or two then flying off. As if on cue, one of them would swoop down and leave some grass by the still bird, then another would do the same until the entire colony had made an offering to the stillness of the bird on the ground. It’s been said, I told her, that magpies engage in funeral-like behavior for their dead. I’ve never seen it though until now. “Oh Daddy! How sad! We must bring them flowers!” Off we would go then to the lavender bush, pick a few stems and she would lay them on the ground next to the prone bird.

Found only in this valley in California, I would tell her, this bird can be found no where else on earth. It’s no wonder they mourn their dead. “So special” she would say, “Daddy I love them!”. Then out comes the bread crumbs and she climbs up on to the little log with the flat top to leave the crumbs for the birds, afterwards we walk home, her small hand in mine and a smile on her face. The next day, we walked back there again and to our surprise one of the birds had arrived early, dropping something on the stump where she had left the bread crumbs, several shiny coins; nickels and dimes, a quarter or two and some pennies, all left on the stump ostensibly placed there by this one little magpie. Now that is odd I said. Someone must of taught this bird to do that, it’s as if he is exchanging the coins for the bread crumbs. Not something birds do. What do you suppose that’s about? “Oh Daddy, she said then, they’re just saying thank you.”

I thought then of all the things I wished for that I didn’t need, of places I believed were better than here and people to be with that helped me believe in the mask that I thought was me. She showed me a way to be and see and hear that I should of listened to, but I brushed it off as the sweet romance of a little girl. Not the wisdom of an old soul. Before I left, I wasn’t sure where I belonged, until she spoke of the birds and the trees and our sojourn among the oaks and the pecans planted so long ago.

I took a step then and my breath caught in my chest and a great weight was lifted off of me. I heard her singing again “good morning birds, good morning trees” and I called out her name. I stumbled, caught the limb of a tree and fell to my knees. It was then that I saw, really saw for the first time in my life, the importance of all there is and all that has lived and all that will be and all that is us and how we are deeply connected to all that is here on earth.

A Single black feather floated down through the limbs and branches of the great oak, landing on her open palm. She sighed and rose to go to the gathering back at the house. She loved being at the boathouse, loved remembering her Dad and the magpies and the trees. Upon rising, her hand holding the feather, she sees something shiny on an old stump, moving closer she sees the coins, and feels the brush of wings and then hears the call of the magpie, once again saying thank you.

And it’s been a long December and there’s reason to believe Maybe this year will be better than the last I can’t remember all the times I tried to tell my myself To hold on to these moments as they pass

—- Counting Crows, A Long December

Authors Notes:
The yellow-billed magpie holds the honors for being the only bird
found exclusively within California’s borders.

MAGPIE PAYS FOR BREAD IT EATS. August 4, 2000. The Sydney Morning Herald London: A woman who began to leave bread for a magpie at her family home was amazed when she found that the bird was paying her for it in coins. The magpie, a regular diner at the Waring family home on Wirral, Merseyside, has so far left $4.42 in coins on the garden bird table.
The Yellow-billed Magpie is gregarious and roosts communally.[2] The
Yellow-billed Magpie flocks are known to engage in funeral-like behavior for their dead.[3]

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