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  • Writer's pictureLianne van der Walt

Jackie's Story

Late on a Saturday afternoon almost two months ago, Jackie arrived in our lives. I was inside the lounge when I spotted a large bird on the neighbour’s window ledge. This is the same window from which their cat watches the comings and goings of the doves on our balcony. I grabbed my binoculars and found I was looking at a fledgling magpie. We do not have magpies in our area as our residential crows patrol and tolerate no intruders. I sensed something was not right - it flew across to our balcony railing and I grabbed some cold meat, tearing it into little bits - the bird was ravenous and hopped on one leg to eat from my hand.

A few seconds after, it flew off and we figured that would be the last we would see of it. The next day we had a return visitor. The little bird arrived on our deck, balancing on one leg and watching me expectantly. Its injured leg appeared to be broken as it kept pulling it up and hiding it under its feathers. The little foot also appeared deformed although the twisted toes seem to be able to open and close. The leg was however totally useless and could bear no weight.

I fed her some cheese (which is not the best option) She liked the raw mince and ate some of our left over roast chicken. She was very vocal and made a lot of little ‘begging’ noises. We had fallen hopelessly head over heels in love with this little creature and named her Jackie. Over the next few days she would appear for food and eagerly devour whatever was on offer. We were so excited when an adult magpie appeared, and our little visitor turned into a begging baby bird. She dropped flat on her stomach, shaking her wings in classic baby bird style while crying for the mum to feed her. The large adult magpie took one look at us and promptly ate all the food we had put out for Jackie. Jackie was confused and distressed when the adult finished eating and flew off without a backward glance at her offspring. I had considered chasing the adult off when it became apparent it would not feed its baby, but an adult magpie is a very big bird – close to the size of a crow and not to be messed with.

Magpies are one of Australia’s treasures. Their ‘carolling’ song is enchanting but their terrifying aerial attacks on cyclists and joggers are well documented. Walking through many of Melbourne’s parks you will find cyclists with spikes attached to their helmets in the hope that it deters these territorial ‘Maggies’ from swooping down and attacking them. They have an excellent memory and are able to recognise faces – in other words, you do not want to unnecessarily upset a magpie as they will remember you. They remain in their territory and with a fairly long life expectancy (25-30 years), they form long friendships with people and are even known to introduce their young to their human friends. The opposite is also true – upset a magpie and you will have to continually watch your back and your head!

Jackie appeared most days except some Fridays and Saturdays. We figured she must take the weekends off to go to the beach just a few kilometres away. By Sunday afternoon or Monday morning she was back on the railing calling us. We would be busy working and the next thing we would hear her beautiful loud, melodious call. All three of us would drop whatever we were doing, Anton would run up the two flights of stairs to open the balcony door while I prepared her food. Snr would go out and ask her where she had been – she never did say.

I joined a few ‘Wild Bird’ Face Book groups to better understand how to care for a wild bird. People were very helpful, and I loved reading about people’s encounters with their ‘Maggies’ and the lengths they would go to, to improve their quality of life. We realised we needed to supplement her food, so a box of ‘Wombaroo’ supplement for insectivorous birds was ordered. This was sprinkled over her mince and hard boiled egg. I later discovered they love raw oats too.

After her meals, Jackie headed into our neighbour’s tree where she spent time singing, earnestly cleaning her beak and resting her good leg as she lay flat on a sturdy branch. I could watch her from the lounge and when she disappeared, I knew it was because she was now waiting outside our balcony door for food. Sure enough the squeaks and song would soon follow.

We have recordings of her singing along with the resident Indian Mynahs and the very vocal Blackbirds (a type of thrush) These uplifting musical duets could carry on for almost ten minutes sometimes. She found that sitting on the top of an open piece of guttering was great for acoustics giving an added depth to her song. We were amazed to hear her singing at midnight too, apparently magpies have what is called a ‘moonlight song.’ Their songs are beautiful, and they are regarded as having one of the most complex ‘vocabularies’ of any bird – they are literally the story tellers of the bird world!

Jackie’s leg was clearly a problem, she battled to balance every time a gust of wind caught her off guard and often had to crouch flat to prevent being blown off a wall. We also noticed how the claw on the twisted foot was curling back on itself and digging into her skin. We were so keen to catch her and take care of her but as a native Australian bird, it is strictly against the law to keep them. The best I could do was to call Victoria Wildlife Rescue and ask for advice. They suggested we catch her and take her to a vet who by law is obliged to take her in at no cost and treat her if possible. She would then be released into the care of a certified carer before finally being released back into the wild.

A selection of boxes and bird capturing equipment made its way to our top floor. I had leather gloves, towels, sticks with a rope pull and a large floppy hat. The first attempt with the gloves failed dismally and led to a great deal of irate shrieking.

A week later Snr tried throwing an oversized floppy sun hat over her – this failed as she screamed with indignation, Snr went flying as he tripped over the umbrella stand and she popped out from under the brim exiting in the opposite direction.

The third attempt involved a plastic box with a wooden stick and a long piece of string. All went well as Jackie headed in under the poised box to eat her mince from her dish. As the string was pulled, the plastic box came down exactly as planned but unfortunately just a second too late. It landed on her back, leaving her splayed out and screeching madly while balancing the box on her back like a turtle. After a mad flat dash around the deck she managed to shake off the box and flew off screaming. This is not the end of this disastrous capture attempt. It got worse.

Our landing upstairs is small, and the stairs narrow and hazardous at the best of times. I was sitting on the staircase at the time of the planned capture. Snr was manning the string and stick, and Anton was hiding behind the wall ready to throw a towel over the box. When Jackie got trapped under the box, all hell broke loose. Anton tried to dash past me on the narrow stairs. In the process he slipped and went flying down the slippery stairs.

To make a long story short, Jackie evaded capture, Snr cursed everything in sight and Anton landed up at the ER at the Alfred Hospital. He had to spend the morning there and came home on crutches and in a great deal of pain. X-rays and an MRI revealed two weeks later that he had in fact torn one of his ligaments right from the bone. There was extensive tissue damage in the rest of the leg and a lot of internal bleeding on the back of the leg. Lying on his bed in pain, he gave a strained faint chuckle and suggested that this had to be ‘Jackie’s revenge…’

We took a unanimous decision not to interfere with Nature any further - we could not risk any more injuries.

Contrary to all of our expectations, Jackie came back later in the day asking for her missed meal. We shook our heads in disbelief but were relieved she was ok and had suffered no lasting injury - unlike Anton. She was teaching us all about tenacity and determination. You can’t expect life to be easy – often courage is what gets you over the line. Jackie had no shortage of this. She was attacked on a regular basis by the crows in the area and we would hear her screaming as she flew past our window doing half barrel rolls in an attempt to shake off their vicious attack. She would then hide for a while and we would listen for her quiet little squeaks informing us she had made it back and was hungry. We put a towel down on the carpet and moved her food dish inside the door where she would not be seen by the crows. She did not hesitate – she flew straight down and hopped into the house to eat. Snapping her beak while eating the oats, she talked to us. She made little squeaks in between a beak full of mince, boiled egg and Wombaroo mix. We sat on the carpet right next to her and she was totally unperturbed. The incident of the falling box had been forgiven and forgotten – she held no grudges.

Jackie had completely captivated our hearts. She arrived every day (except weekends of course when she headed off to the beach…) and relished every meal we put out for her. We would find her either peering around the door at her empty bowl or peering down at us from the roof. We had the absolute joy of feeding her for six weeks before we managed to try one last time to catch her.

She was looking more and more harassed and some of her tail feathers had been broken in her attempts at escaping the ongoing attack by the crows. We had no other option but to get our act together and formulate a plan that would actually work. Unbeknown to me, Snr and Anton had been plotting the night before while I was lying on my bed recovering from the after-effects of a shingles vaccination.

The following morning while I was in the shower, the guys put their plan into action, coaxing her further inside and finally into the study where they could corner her and catch her. As I came out of the shower, Snr appeared, holding a towel-covered Jackie in his arms. I was furious at not being involved in the capture, but they were quite right in thinking it would be more effective and definitely less dangerous if I was out of the way. We put her on a towel in a nice big transparent box and she was strangely very quiet. She tried tapping on the sides a few times but made no other noise – she did not seem stressed at all.

The guys took her to a bird vet 10km from us who was prepared to give her a fighting chance. The receptionist warned me that we would have to sign a ‘Surrender form’ meaning once you hand over the bird there could be no further communication allowed. In other words, it is up to the vet to decide on her quality of life given the circumstances. If possible, they would treat her and hand her over to Victoria wildlife rehabilitation who would then provide her with a certified carer until she is fit to be released again into the wild. I wrote a note to the veterinary staff explaining that Jackie was no ordinary bird and attached it to a big box of chocolates – anything to help sway the verdict so that it would be a positive outcome. I hope it made a difference.

It had taken us six weeks to get to this point, but we just knew that the time had come to do something. Walking around the apartment now, I imagine I keep ‘hearing’ her beautiful song in the tree next door and her quiet little squeaks asking for food. How is it possible I wonder, that such a small wild creature of which I knew absolutely nothing, could creep so deeply into our hearts. Our little ‘Maggie’ as they are lovingly known by Australians, came into our lives with a flurry of joy and song. Jackie entertained us, she charmed us, she captivated us, and she taught us so much.

She reminded us of the power in connections. Through her, I had connected with a number of different people, learning so much about this iconic Australian bird. They all said the same thing, “Once a ‘Maggie’ has crept into your heart – you remain devoted to their wellbeing.” You will rush home from work to feed them, you will risk life and limb to climb trees to check on nests and babies and you will have long conversations with these beautifully vocal birds.

Jackie in her fierce independence, reminded me to always hope and to always trust. She did not ask why we were feeding her or what we would gain from it, she just knew that we would and that we were good. She reminded me to be present always in every moment and to make the most of it at the time. Her joyful singing was simply for the pure pleasure of it. She did it because she could, and it filled the world around her with beauty. She was not expecting anything in return.

As I miss her daily visits, I think about the mystery of her appearance and I realise that there is so much we cannot understand or reasonably explain. How can we love something so deeply knowing that it can never be ours? Perhaps this is what love really is about – totally unconditional and selfless. It is in the giving of it that we experience what it is to surrender our control and to be vulnerable. Jackie reminded us that we are all inextricably connected, part of something so much greater than just ourselves.

I will forever be on the lookout now for our little one-legged ‘Maggie’ as she serenades the sunrise. Every magpie song will remind me to always hope, have trust and love, even the crows will remind me of her courage and tenacity in the face of adversity.

It takes great courage to love, but there can be no greater joy. Jackie will live on in our hearts regardless.

Jackie would say to you now, “Sing your beautiful song with all your heart - the whole world is listening.”

PS - Be sure to turn up the volume when you watch the video below!

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