Martin always gets home from a week working up in the Big Smoke latish and wrung out, a limp rag, and I try to have everything peaceful and orderly for him. A quick peek at the sleeping kids, dinner, and a quiet slump in front of the TV while I whip up almond biscuits for supper. That is what I usually organise.
But this night, as soon as we heard the car drive up to the garage, the whole family swarmed out onto the verandah to greet him.
‘We’ve got a pet magpie. His name is Hoppy. Because he’s got a sore leg.’
And the family posse poured over the lawn and into the garage. I turned on the light and there was Hoppy, roosting on the window ledge. He skwarked a bit in the sudden light, but looked quite at home.
‘He fell out of the nest,’ said Stephen.
‘He can’t fly yet,’ said Alice.
‘I gave him some cat food, but tomorrow I’ll get up early and look for worms,’ I said.
‘I’d have thought we had enough magpies around the place,’ said Martin.
That’s true enough. They can be a real menace in the nesting season, with their relentless dive bombing. One year we couldn’t get down the road to the shop for squadrons of them, swooping in behind you and then cracking their wings as they looped up and away. It scared the life out of me, and the kids would get hysterical. So we would creep down the laneway and go the long way round.
Anyway, Hoppy had taken up residence, and perhaps when he grew up he would have a word with his mates about the dive bombing thing.
Me and the kids would get up at the crack of dawn to shut him up, stuffing his beak full of worms and cat food. Have you ever heard the noise a young magpie makes when he’s hungry? Finger down a blackboard!
But he was a friendly little chap. Once he had been stuffed with food, the racket descended to a liquid sort of gurgling, and he would follow the kids around all day playing with them. If they were building a fort, he would be hopping around giving instructions. If Alice got her barbie dolls out, he would peck away at a little waistcoat or jumpsuit, choosing an outfit.
But his favourite game was when, on really hot days, I would turn the sprinkler on for the kids to cool down.
He would run under the spray, screeching away at the top of his lungs, dancing on his twisted leg, with two little half-naked kids.
When I turned the sprinkler off, he would perch on the edge of the verandah with his wings spread out to dry off, chuckling away to himself. He was a character.
He learnt to fly. But he didn’t fly away. He would zoom in and land on my shoulder, or one of the kids’ heads. Of course, magpies learn to fly before they learn to land. They take a crash course in landing, as it were. So we seemed to spend most of that summer laughing at Hoppy’s antics.
We taught him how to find his own food. We would go around the garden, with him goosestepping behind us, turning up stones, finding worms and beetles for him to eat. One day, we were parading around the garden, kids and magpie chattering encouragement to each, searching for magpie fodder. Stephen turned over the big stone by the herb garden, and out shot a lizard. Hoppy dived in with his flashing beak and got hold of the lizard’s tail. Well, the lizard squirmed and writhed in the terrible beak – and let go of his tail! The lizard dropped to the ground. And raced away! Very stumpy. Very stumpy indeed. And the tail writhed ferociously in Hoppy’s beak.
Hoppy was gobsmacked. He dropped the tail. It writhed and lashed for about a minute. He stepped back. Glanced up in the air. Decided to fly around and think things over. Crouched – and launched.
Soon after that Hoppy learned to quardle and stopped screaming for food from us. He was still part of our flock. He would crouch and invite us to fly with him. When we didn’t, he would come back and try it again. But we never learned to fly.
Then one day, as I was having a chat with him, kids off down the back paddock somewhere, he glanced over his shoulder as another magpie landed on the fence. They had a magpie moment. For the first time he wanted to fly away with his own kind. He looked up at me from the lawn, such bright eyes, and I could have called him to me. But I didn’t. So he flew away with the other magpie. And, as far as we know, they lived happily ever after.