Magpies, The Used Car Salesmen of the Avian World


One of the quirks of nature that I really love is that each animal seems to have its own black-and-white model.

You got your skunks (rodents), your pandas (bears, not really), your zebras (horses, kind of), and your killer whales (whales, duh). All adorable, all chock full of bubbly personality, all photogenic and ready to pose for some kind of wildlife logo or another.

But there’s one specimen that I could live without. It’s the Andrew Dice Clay of the avian world. The magpie.

Oh, but they have so much personality, you say. They’re so bright, they’re so funny and interesting. Well, all I can say is, we all know a few brilliant assholes, don’t we?

Magpies are like that dude you knew in high school, the guy who tried to be the class clown but had all the subtlety of a sledge hammer, and about as much affable charm as Dick Cheney. This guy spent his school days towel-snapping pink freshmen butts in the locker room and starting rumors that the president of the Key Club had three testicles. He was pushy, rude, overbearing, and tasteless. And he usually wound up selling real estate and driving a Hummer.

Magpies seem to have no friends or allies in the bird community, but apparently they think that their striking coloring of glossy blue/black juxtaposed on a downy white crow body will charm people into not blasting them to smithereens.

News flash, magpies: You are not protected by state law. And that showy long tail the color of Superman’s hair isn’t winning me over either. I will tell you this—if plain old crows were as obnoxious and persistently provocative as these mouthy bastards, well, Heckle and Jeckle would be the only surviving members of that species.

I’ve sat in my backyard watching all kinds of feather-based activity, and every species seems to know its place in the, um, pecking order. At the very least they respect the presence of other birds. Magpies usually show up like monochromatic turds in the ornithological punchbowl, squawking and screeching and bullying and teasing the other birds. And the odd slow-moving dog. They act like people from Texas. (“I’m from Texas! Screw you!”)

Magpies, the used car salesmen of the bird world.

“Whoa, buddy! I told you the warranty covered mechanical only! Tell you what, how’s about I throw in a few of them tree air fresheners and we call it good?”

How are we supposed to sleep with our windows open in the sweltering summer heat, when a chattering crew of magpies invariably decides to descend into the back yard at the crack of dawn, making more noise than a busted chainsaw?

I don’t mind the sound of robins, sparrows, nuthatches, chickadees, what have you. All their melodic chirping and twittering makes me feel like I’m waking up in a Disney movie. Like a group of bluebirds will bring me my bathrobe and coffee. But the grating yawp of the magpie gang assaults my ear like an ice pick to the ear hole.

Oh, they can be charming if they want to be. Sometimes I’ll be out back, pulling valuable plants out of my wife’s garden thinking they’re weeds and I’m doing her a favor, when a formally-dressed magpie will alight on a nearby tree branch. He (or she) will then make a soft, gurgling call to announce his (or her) presence. Adorable, I’ll think. Maybe he (or she) wants to be friends.

But then, after a few of these soft coos lull me into a vulnerable sense of tolerance, half a dozen of his (or her) cackling brethren (or cistern) swoop in to join the first one, sounding like a carload of 12-year-old girls en route to a Justin Bieber concert. Makes me want to dust off my old wrist rocket and blast his (or her) head right off that iridescent body with a well-placed ball bearing.

Like crows, ravens, and other corvids of their ilk, magpies are very opportunistic. You can find them in abundance in the Florida panhandle right after a hurricane, making lowball bids on ruined property and clutching insurance contracts with outrageous premium details hidden in the fine print. They also tend to choose as mates wealthy, much older birds that are in poor health.

Magpies have been observed exhibiting very intelligent behavior and using logical thinking to complete complex tasks. In some rare instances, they have even been reported to use tools. In a small North Carolina town in 1991, for example, a magpie was observed going into an Ace Hardware store, where he used a stolen debit card to buy a set of bolt cutters. Witnesses say the bird even produced a $5.00-off Ace Club discount card.

And talk about opportunistic, these characters will eat anything. They put the nom nom into omnivorous. There’s no garbage they won’t scarf, from putrescent banana peels to used chewing gum. They’ll swoop in to yank the dirty diaper right off a crying baby in a stroller, and they’ll gleefully gulp disgusting wads of god-knows-what from a parking lot surface that not even a dog would give a second sniff.

In other words, magpies are clever, devious, and greedy, and try to get by on their good looks. They’re brazen and atavistic, totally untrustworthy, and they have absolutely no compunction about crossing any moral lines whatsoever.

Maybe we should just call them “Congressmen.”

Thanks to Robert Meyerowitz for inspiring this post.


Wanna laugh ’til your sides hurt? These ought to do the trick: Care and Feeding of Your Wedding BandBob Wire’s Summertime Revolution, and The Guitar That Saved My Soul.

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Think of it as Gonzo meets Hee Haw: Missoula honky tonker Bob Wire holds forth on a unique life filled with music, parenthood, drinking, sports, working, marriage, drinking, and just navigating the twisted wreckage of American culture. Plus occasional grooming tips. Like the best humor, it’s not for everyone. Sometimes silly, sometimes surreal, sometimes savage, Bob Wire demands that you possess a good sense of humor and an open mind.

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