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Birdspotting: Pica

From the W1555 Buurtbrief Dovember 2023, by Pascal



It was during the ‘Verborgen Tuinen’ (“hidden gardens”) weekend that we found it, or rather it found us. My girlfriend and I manage a neighbourhood vegetable garden at the schoolyard of OBS Charlois and I was there that Saturday morning to tell visitors of the hidden gardens weekend about the vegetable garden we recently started there. 

I was chatting in the garden with a few visitors and suddenly there it was, between us, a young magpie of, I estimated, about 4 or 5 weeks old. What the hell, we looked at each other, and the young animal at us, dumbfounded. I got down on my knee and immediately its beak opened and it started twitching its wings, it's hungry that's for sure! I held out my hand and it just stepped on my finger, it seems tame! Or is this opportunism? Has it put aside all fear to get food and approached us because it is unable to find food on its own? Where are its parents? There is a magpie nest in the birch in a backyard adjacent to the schoolyard. If it was born there, its parents must be nearby. Did its parents stop feeding and "throw it out the door?", I did not know.

I decided to ask my son, Imre, to come and bring some cat food. In "no time" it was in the garden with the cat chunks. We soaked the kibble in some water and fed it to the young bird. Gluttonously it ate the fed kibble. 

Imre was sold, all afternoon he sat in the garden with Pica, it now had a name. Neighbourhood children and visitors admired the bird.

That used to be different. Magpies were traditionally considered unlucky birds, heralds of death and disaster. That magpies are linked with death and other unpleasant things is because they used to be often found in places such as battlefields and gallows. The bodies then provided a casual food source for magpies. Today, magpies are still found near places where death has prevailed, for example along motorways. Here, they perform useful clean-up work by clearing the carcasses of overrun animals. 

The end of the afternoon was approaching and we had to clean up. What should we do with Pica? We couldn't leave it  like this, it wouldn't survive. Imre desperately wanted to keep it, (and secretly so did I). We decided to take it home and leave it in the back garden for a night. We have an enclosed garden so safe for Pica we thought. By now, all the neighbours were aware of the situation and kept their cats inside. This way, things had to go well. 

Alas, the next morning the bird had flown, my son's disappointment was very understandable. A jackdaw or magpie as a pet had been his dream and now it is gone...That's how it goes, it belongs in nature, it will survive, I explained trying to make my children understand, but it was not fun. My son had to go to school camp that morning but he didn't want to. He needed to know where Pica went.

Together with the teacher, we agreed to keep him informed of developments around Pica, yes yes it had now really become "a thing".

Late in the afternoon we got a call from a neighbour, they had a bird in their gallery and didn't know what to do with it.   

Immediately I rushed over and damn it it was Pica! A cheerful Chick! was his reaction when I knelt in front of it. I quickly brought it home and texted the teacher that Pica had been found again.  

Anyway, now what? My son absolutely adores that animal and desperately wants to see the bird, but won't be home for 2 days. What do we do until then, keep it inside?  It needs to eat pretty much every hour and we also have a cat. 

It is very cute and funny though, and everyone loves it, I found myself trying to find an excuse to keep it.

I decided to call Vogelklas Karel Schot, they know their stuff. "Come and bring it, what else do you want?" the employee told me. “It is very tame, it can step on your hand, it won't get wild again, will it?”  I responded. "It'll be here in the group with 30 other young magpies, it will grow over that in no time."  Indeed, I later read that young magpies form clans. In such a clan, they are relatively safe and learn from each other. 

We kept Pica for over a day, in the bathroom; it had shat all over the place.

That Wednesday evening after Imre returned from school camp, we took it away. Imre gave Pica to the staff member and tearfully told him this was the best thing for him because it belongs in nature.

Pica how cute and funny you were, all the best to you!

The magpie (Lat. Pica Pica), is considered one of the most intelligent animals on earth. Magpies have elaborate social rituals, show expression of grief and mourning, use tools and are one of the few animals that can recognise themselves in a mirror. 

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