Snail Mail Magpie

Snail Mail Magpie

         They don’t fly very well. Or maybe I mean they fly awkwardly compared to other birds their size; more like a glide-skip-plop than a zoom-bank-settle. To some people who live around them they’re a damn nuisance but they are beautifully marked in the eyes of various artists who find them worthy of intricate drawings, paintings, carvings, or whatever. I saw a boat once down in La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico, named the Mad Magpie—something I can well imagine. When the Sea of Cortez acts up, a sailboat can glide-skip-plop on a mad sea just like that bird.

         Having no song they chat among themselves, even chat alone “chat-chat-chat”, and at times you’ll hear a sound between a high pitched whistle and a screech. Definitely a flock bird, but one that likes their space; you won’t find them in large, close flocks like starlings or blackbirds. They are thieves turned looters in parks and picnic grounds where people leave any kind of scrap, be it greasy paper or lids off ice-cream containers; they’ll attempt to eat or take away anything that isn’t nailed down. For this reason—I mentioned nuisance—they are often used for target practice in open country where you and I aren’t likely to take the buckshot in-between birds. They like it best in large open fields with low, picturesque, wooden-rail fences to plunk their black and white plumage on; the kind of bird, that if they had a mirror handy, would sit in front of it a good part of the day preening—a bit like some people we know.

So…I’m partnered with this lanky artist who has published a bird book of all the birds he’s seen in this area since he arrived in 1980. Like Audubon, he has drawn, explained, grouped and colored them all by hand—a beautiful little book that he sells locally and to various bird lovers and clubs. He also carves birds, as well as other animals, and regularly gets commissions for his work. But guess what? There’s not a magpie in the lot—drawn or in wood. We don’t have magpies here in the Upper Sonoran Desert, and if we want to see them have to travel quite a way north.

One day, out of the blue, a friend asks him to carve her favorite bird. A magpie, what else? Though he knows full well what they look like and has as many pictures of them as he has fingers, he’ll need on-the-spot photos from different angles that show feather patterns and wing positions. The next time we go north to places where we’ve always seen them we take cameras, expecting to return with a whole portfolio of the quirky critters turned every way but upside-down.

We don’t see one.

Undeterred, Joey begins carving—says he can hold off on the wings, but suggests that I call my friend in Telluride, asking if he’ll take and send us some photos. We’ve been there and know that Dick’s open country backyard has the whole shebang of fields, quaint fences, meadows and picnic tables for magpies to plunk on. Himself being an artist who works from clay to bronze statuary, says he’ll be happy to comply and will get at it within the next few days


         A couple weeks later finds me holding the carved wooden body of half-a-bird in my hand, turning it over and over, feeling the smooth and rough spots, studying the interesting grain in the wood—too bad this one will be covered with paint, not stain–wings will be fitted into the small groove on its back, otherwise it’s close to being airborne. Joey usually hangs his creations from the ceiling when he’s finished, to set the proper angle of flight; the body is so real looking I can already picture it over our dining area, poised to flit down and have a bite of whatever we’re eating.

“So, how about the wings?” I ask

“Not done yet. I’m still waiting for Dick to send me photos.”

Wingless Magpie

Wingless Magpie

It’s been several weeks, almost a month, since I asked for them and he’s anxious to continue with the carving now, like any artist, when he’s in a creative mood. I call Telluride again.        “Hey there, ol’ buddy, Joey has a wingless bird here and wants to get it flying–where are the pictures you were going to send?”

“Oh, damn! I’m sorry. I got called away on another commission and didn’t get to it before I left. Promise I’ll do it this weekend, send them immediately they’re developed.”

He’ll have to wait a week at least before the pictures come–these are the days before instant photos via computer–so we head south to visit friends and take care of some business, leaving Maggie on the workbench, lying across his roughly chiseled wings. We take our trip just in time. The Upper Sonoran is mild when we leave, but by the time we return, over a week later, it’s actually gotten hot. It is mid morning when we stop at the post office to collect our mail, hoping the photos of the bird will have arrived in our absence.

Magpie with wings

Magpie with wings

Sure enough. There’s a pink slip notice of a pick-up at the window. He must have taken a whole roll of them.

“Jesus! Vicky explodes, “I’m glad you’re finally here!” She retreats to the back of the building, comes back with what, in the dim light, looks like a plant in a hanging basket. She opens the door beside the window cage and hands Jeoy, at arms length, a large garbage bag sealed tightly with rubber bands and with clenched teeth, says, “Get this damn thing out of here—whatever it is.” (She knows she can speak her mind with us, as we often do with her.) Noticing our puzzled faces—we’ve no idea what’s inside—she explains: “It came in a box two or three days ago and began to smell so badly I put it in there to keep it from stinking up the whole post office. You know I can’t throw it out; what was I supposed to do? It was about to make me sick. If you hadn’t come back today I was going to hang it out the window.”

I understood what she meant, it did stink; even sealed in the plastic bag it was becoming offensive at close range. Tentatively, I ask–a germ of possibility tickling the air, “ you remember where it came from?”

“Colorado, I think. But don’t you dare open it in here—just let me know what it is…was…when you get home.”

The light bulb goes on as Joey and I look at each other with open mouths, eyes wide and probability bursting to full bloom. “Oh gawd, no—NO!”, I howl.

“Bloody hell…bet it is,” mutters Joey.

“What?” she wants to know.

“Uh, well…we don’t know, Vicky, not really, until we get it open.” Then, to dampen her curiosity, add as I gather up our mail, “It’s probably some kind of special fertilizer Joey ordered for the garden ”

He shrugs, and before he can say anything, I push him toward the door, bag in hand, calling over my shoulder, “I’ll ring you soon as we know what we’ve got.” We exit in a flurry, choking back the incredulity of what might be inside. It pollutes the car even on the short drive to the house, so first thing out the door is the bag. It sits outside Joey’s workshop while we unpack from our trip, and when he opens it, the stench rises two stories to the bedroom windows!

More white than black, crawling with maggots and surrounded by flies is a veritable feast–the local ravens and vultures are going to love it if the fox or the coyotes don’t get it first. Yup, it’s a real live-dead magpie! Just perfect for detecting wing-positions in flight; that is, if you want to stand and hold it in place while the maggots crawl up and down your arms. Joey cuts off a wing for the feather design, photos it quickly and tosses it down the hill with the rest of the feathered fermentation?

I go inside and call Dick.

“Hi, lady, how are you guys? Did you get the bird?”

“Oh, yeah! We got the bird, all right! And how are we? Smelly!




© Katie Lee- 3/2007

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