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  • Luke Dowding

Meeting My Magpie

I’m currently nursing a mild obsession with the magpie that visits our balcony in South-West London every morning.


I’m also currently nursing my immune system after an encounter with whatever I ought to be calling Covid-19 these days.


It’s been a very mild infection, which has left me a little worn out, and with the additional slightly bizarre symptoms of sore tonsils and an occasional earache. In fact, had I not taken two LFTs on Christmas morning (you’re welcome for that curveball, family), and followed it up with a PCR test in a portacabin in a car park (Merry Christmas indeed), I probably would have not thought it were Covid-related at all. Of course, I’d have to be living in a parallel universe for that to be the case, because even a wayward sneeze causes panic amongst many during these rollercoaster times.


As a result I’ve been enjoying over eight hours of sleep a night and at least one afternoon nap a day; that combined with my current vitamin and supplement regime (C, D, Zinc, Quercetin, and a lot of pressed ginger – for those that are interested) has meant that not only are my energy levels likely going to be better post-Covid than they were before it, but that also my skin is loving all the benefits this enforced wellness and rest has offered (and the green smoothies I’m guzzling, I’ve no doubt).


But back to the magpie. This often-maligned bird has been flying around near our building for weeks. At the beginning of the month, I flung my laptop aside when I noticed the magpie digging around in one of planters – searching for food, I presumed. Thus followed a panicked text to my husband: “I’m worried about the magpie”, and so we cut to a bulk-order of RSPB-approved birdfeed – two of which are now, in increasingly elaborate ways to attract the munching of the magpie, strung to our balcony. Just the other day we had success; a sight we wouldn’t have seen had I’d not rather inconveniently tested positive for Covid on Christmas morning – I may have mentioned that already? Our chatty magpie has at last taken to eating the birdfeed, and to be quite honest: I’m delighted.


This magpie viewing evolved this morning into a casual bit of internet browsing (I am isolating, after all) – which included audio recordings of their song, lots of myths debunked (they don’t really like shiny things, apparently), and amusement at the rhymes and superstitions that circle these birds that I’ve always rather loved.


When I was a child, I was taught to greet a solitary magpie with a formal “morning milord”; whilst I was told it was bad luck to not respectfully say hello because of their ill-omened nature, I always just felt rather sorry for these alleged harbingers of doom. This continues today – I say hello to be friendly, not for fear that I’ll rain curses down upon myself if I don’t. However, that is apparently the thing to do – and there are various versions of what to say and how to say it when a magpie darts across your path.


To add further to the already fuelled fire of anti-magpie manifestos: if you see seven of these beauties then it’s allegedly the devil himself; the magpie was the only bird not to enter Noah’s Ark (it sat on top of the craft and swore at folk, some myths add – which kind of makes me love the bird even more); and they as a species were also not represented well at the crucifixion of Christ, where they were either not there at all, or didn’t sing to the dying Messiah – depending on who you ask. Of course, their reputation as scavengers and omnivores adds further distinction to their ill repute.


As an aside, and rather wonderfully, magpies form flocks of non-breeding birds; due to the large territory each bird can hold and the lack of suitable nest sites. It must be said that I feel a soul-level connection to a bird that finds others like itself that have also chosen not to breed.


There’s also an interesting difference in Eastern and Western traditions that fly up around these birds, with many of the former agreeing that the magpie is a sign of good fortune and domestic bliss; their plumage has even been likened to the definitive symbol of duality and balance: yin-yang. Magpies have favourable connections to the Manchu Dynasty, and it is considered lucky if one builds a nest near your home. Compellingly, for the writers amongst us, the Chinese character for “write” in its traditional form is a magpie under a roof – which some have suggested implies that writing is setting ideas in order in just the same way that a magpie arranges its nest.


In many ways, I feel as if my time with the magpie this season has affirmed some of the lessons I have learned (for the first time or for the hundredth) in 2021: don’t take what you’re told as a given, the truth might be elsewhere; it is OK to dig around for answers, even if you’re labelled incorrectly or judged unfairly; it is time to unlearn some of the misconceptions we have of ourselves, others, and the world around us; it is possible for something to be both good and bad, a sign of joy for some, an omen of fear for others; it is necessary to take time to get your nest in order.


I hadn’t intended this to evolve into an end of year reflection, but perhaps I needed to write in the way of the magpie and its nest – bringing order to thought and action. I’m therefore looking ahead to the coming year, mindful of our recent Worldly Wellbeing podcast with Liz Nottingham and the encouragement to reflect monthly not only annually. I feel content that I go into whatever is to come with more to uncover, more to learn, more to scavenge out and glean, more to find to build the nest in which rest and shelter is found for myself and for others.


Whatever 2022 is, it will be another year of learning and unveiling, and I’m grateful that I have met a new airborne friend for part of it.


Peace and light. Luke x




[The image is by Qi Baishi, via http://www.chinaonlinemuseum.com/]

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