Natural Observations–Maggie the Magpie

Magpie photo by Robin Song


In this Earth and Beyond program, host and producer Robin Song tells the story of a tame magpie which endeared itself to several households. Text follows audio.


Most folks know that members of the Corvid family are pretty smart birds. Ravens, crows, jays and magpies live in social societies and are problem-solvers. Anyone who has watched a Nature program about scientists devising tests for corvids comes away with a whole new respect for these feathered “Einsteins”.

Several years ago some local Talkeetnans crossed paths with a special magpie and recently I learned the whole story. Unfortunately, the sex of corvids cannot be deduced by their plumage, so they never knew if the bird was male or female, but it became “Maggie”, nonetheless.


John Reynolds is an auto mechanic, and also works on school busses. The busses parked there easily locate his shop. Next to his shop is the small house which used to be occupied by his daughter, Kerrie, and her former husband, Ralf. One day in 1999 a magpie arrived on the window ledge while Kerrie was giving a piano lesson. It looked in, and didn’t seem in any hurry to leave. When the lesson had ended and the student had gone home, the magpie was still there. Kerrie called her dad, who lived just down the road.


“Well, maybe it will go away,” John said. It didn’t- for five years. And so “Maggie” came into their lives.


The school busses are parked in front of the shop during the day, and Maggie liked to fly from mirror to mirror, talking to her reflection. One morning, when John came to work, Maggie was on one of the busses’ mirrors, jabbering away at her reflection. John walked over to her. She flew off, but landed again, not far away. John went into the auto shop and got some dog kibbles from the bag kept there for the family’s dog. He put a few down for the magpie and backed away. She came over and ate a few. He put some in his palm and held it out. She hesitated.


It took about four days for Maggie to fly from the gas pump to John’s hand. She’d grab a few kibbles and fly to the forest. Patience won out. Eventually she’d stay on his hand and eat. John thought that maybe she’d been hand-reared by someone, which would explain why she had little fear of humans.


One day one of the bus drivers called to say he had a passenger- Maggie had gotten inside the empty bus unnoticed. After that, she’d often go for a ride when there weren’t passengers, standing on the back of a seat, watching out the windows.


Maggie would hang out in the forest near the shop, often with other magpies. John would go outside and call her. She would fly from the trees to his hand to receive her handout of kibbles. One day the fuel man came by with a delivery. John had spotted Maggie in the forest nearby with five other magpies just as the fuel truck arrived. John asked: “You want to see something?” He reached into his pocket, put a few kibbles in his hand, and called Maggie. She flew from the trees across the road, glided to John and landed on his outstretched hand. She ate the kibbles, then flew back across the road and into the forest, where her buddies were waiting. The stunned fuel man asked: “Did I see what I just saw?! How did you get her to do that?” John grinned and answered: “Oh, it took about three weeks and a lot of patience.”


John told me: “We could always tell her apart from the other magpies because she was plumper.” His wife, Kathy, would call from their home to tell him Maggie was there. As Kathy went about her household chores, Maggie would follow her, flying from window to window so she could watch Kathy.


There’s a sliding glass door leading out onto the porch, and one day it was open. Maggie flew inside the house. She roamed about, checking things out. But when she found the goldfish bowl and landed on the rim, she had to be shooed outside again, before she ate the fish.


One day they slid open the door while Maggie was on the porch. John placed a piece of toast on the edge of the dining room table, a few feet from the door. He invited Maggie to come in and get her treat. She hopped inside and stood looking up at the table. John told her she had to come up onto the table. After a few moments Maggie flew onto the table and gracefully took her piece of toast and flew out the door, heading for the forest.


Kerrie told me Maggie would frequent her house, as well, landing on the windowsill and screeching until someone brought her some food. She’d stand on the windowsill, watching while Kerrie’s students had their piano lessons. If their dog, “Pepper” was outdoors, Maggie would land, walk around and tug on the dog’s tail. Maggie would also take food from Kerrie and her husband Ralf’s hands.


Maggie would disappear in the spring through summertime, as most magpies do- busy raising families. Then, one autumn day, here she’d be back. She’d make the rounds from the Reynolds’ home to a neighbor’s, to the Bus Barn, to Kerrie’s house, and back to the Reynolds’. After five years of her robust friendship, Maggie disappeared one spring and didn’t return. The end of her story is anyone’s guess. For five years she chose to include humans in her life, and endeared herself to them. When a wild creature crosses that invisible line and chooses to make humans a part of its life, it’s a special gift. Maggie still lived in the wild, still lived within her social flock of birds. She was self-sufficient, and yet chose to interact with humans. Her reasons were her own. She touched hearts, for when I talked with John about Maggie, I could see the affection in his eyes as the memories of her came alive for him. And I could hear it in Kerrie’s voice as she told me about Maggie over the phone. They knew what a gift she was, and I’m glad they decided to share her story with us. Wherever you went, Maggie, I hope your life was a good one.

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