Annoying, egg-sucking, song-bird-killing magpies back with vengeance this year

Long ago I learned that if you write anything — good or bad — about magpies or coyotes and that ilk, you’ll take flak either way; one man’s varmint is another woman’s puddy tat, to mention perhaps the worst varmint of them all, at least when it comes to songbirds and rose gardens.

Long ago I learned that if you write anything — good or bad — about magpies or coyotes and that ilk, you’ll take flak either way; one man’s varmint is another woman’s puddy tat, to mention perhaps the worst varmint of them all, at least when it comes to songbirds and rose gardens.

Sometimes readers and events leave no option but to enter the fray yet again. This is a vintage year for magpies, apparently, all over the province. The usual complaints are the insufferable yak-yakking (the Cree were onto something when they suffixed “kakakes” to their wonderful language’s every word naming the critter) and the egg-sucking, killing, and driving away of birds with songs that are worth listening to.

The letter columns in the Calgary Herald have been full for weeks with demands for a city magpie cull, then just as many decrying the very thought. Nobody even thinks about how a city-wide cull could possibly be carried out where most Calgary magpies live: in the perfect, private habitats Calgarians create for them in their own back yards; conifers to build nests in that are almost impossible to see, let alone tear down, free garbage and enriched dog food to eat.

I attribute the high magpie population in my Red Deer back yard to the fact that the friendly neighbourhood merlin has been AWOL since last fall. I know the little falcon cannot bring down a magpie, but he does enjoy trying, chasing, stooping, and veering off at the last minute. That, and his constant killdeer-like call, seems to encourage magpies to evacuate and nest elsewhere. Of course, the songbirds also depart which a merlin can catch and kill, leaving us with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring without benefit of DDT.

Red Deer readers email me with many practical questions about the legalities of doing their own magpie culling in their personal, perfect back yard magpie habitats. Suffice the answers are not as sleek, shiny and black and white as the detested Pica pica and their whining offspring.

Let me hasten to admit at the outset that, while I grudgingly admire the cruel cunning of magpies, I just don’t like them very much. Clearly magpies are legal “game” without licence, or limit under provincial legislation. I have exterminated hundreds of them, many by participating as a kid in the pheasant country programs that paid ten cents a pair for magpie feet and almost bankrupted the Alberta Fish and Game Association after the war. But these “Holstein Pheasants” compensated and thrived, merely by breeding bigger, better and oftener.

Some authorities direly note that the magpie is listed in a schedule to the federal “Migratory Bird Convention Act,” but nobody can tell me what that means, especially since the magpie, in fact, is not a migratory bird.

A gent I know very well quietly kept his yard’s magpie numbers under control with a superb aperture-sighted Sheridan Blue Streak pellet gun, but a nosy neighbour reported an “armed man” in his yard, and he got a visit from the SWAT squad and a reminder that the late Ald. Ethel Taylor’s “Anti-Projectile Bylaw” is in force in Red Deer. Shucks; the gent erroneously thought it was just Ethel’s “Cat Belling Bylaw” that was passed.

In my yard the magpies torment and dive at my Brittany, Beau, often miscalculating how high he can jump, even from the sitting position. An insufficient, but satisfying number of times each summer, a magpie dog-strafing miscalculation results in a sudden “crunch,” followed by considerable corvid yakking and k-k-keening.

Red Deer City Hall advises trapping magpies is still lawful in Red Deer, then, as does the Federation of Alberta Naturalists, lectures on the moral obligation of humanely disposing of a trap-load of magpies lured there by trail of dog kibble, like so many avian Hansels and Gretels.

Favoured method seems to be to release them “out in the country,” which would have to be somewhere far, like Pago Pago, if you have the faintest hope of beating them home: maybe that’s why magpies are scheduled in the “Migratory Bird Convention Act.”

The natural absurdities in the letters to the editor are stunning. My favourite is from the gent who asserts that the magpie population peak is somehow because of the scarcity of coyotes. Funny: all winter those same columns were full of letters demanding culls of the too-many coyotes in Calgary. The old saying is that this, or that “would give a coyote the heartburn.” My suspicion is the magpie may be the one thing on earth a coyote won’t eat. Certainly old Beau just leaves the ones he jumps and crunches where they crash.

No matter what we try, culls, bounties, even the horrible “coyote-getter” poison campaigns we once conducted, the one sure thing is that when the last living human passes on, it will be coyotes and magpies that pick his earthly bones.

Bob Scammell is an award-winning outdoors writer living in Red Deer.

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