Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle: Poet Marty Smith’s avian ardour

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23 March 2022

Reading Time: 3 minutes

When poet Marty Smith rescued a baby magpie, she fell head over heels in love.

I can hear her up in the magpie tree, her cry lower, more baby-like: a chatter, a wee warble, the odd excited squawk when she joins in with the magpie orchestra, all their beaks pointed at the sky, throats wobbling. It’s lovely to listen to; hard to know why they suddenly fly, or what they’ll do next; drift down to land on the lawn to pick and stab, or flap across to the fence posts to sit, staring out over the estuary.

She came as a baby in a cardboard box, a bundle of fluff with bright dark eyes, tiny beak pointing bravely up. I let a drip from an eye-dropper onto her beak, she opened up wide, and I dropped a small strand of mince on the back of her tongue. She gobbled it with that odd little sound, swallowed up lumps, and shrieked “More!”

I called her Pecky Sharp, after Becky in Vanity Fair; I enjoy a literary joke. Her perch was a branch in the bathroom, wired to the towel rail. She rode down the hall on my arm. I hold it straight and steady, she crouches and leans forward like the prow of a ship, shifting her weight to balance. She’s light as she shifts and solid when she sits. Her little claws scratch when she skids on bare skin, but I never mind.

I gave her water in a glass right from the start, then she’d dip in her beak, tip back her head, and swallow it down. “Drink, bird?” I’d say, and offer her the glass. “Cup of tea, bird?” when she dipped her beak in my cup.

We couldn’t let her outside unless she could come back, where would she go? The hawks soar and float all day, looking. She lived on the windowsills until she could land. Her first flights were short, but she got bold quick, and I couldn’t keep up.

I sprinted to the corner of the shed but she was out of sight, and I was looking, calling, thinking I’d lost her, then a whoosh of wings and she landed with a swoop on my foot. Gave me the side-eye, as in “What’s up?”, meaning “Did you see that?” She got under my feet in the garden, pattered quick, quick across my hands just as I was digging, poking her head into the hole, pulling out spiders, pinching out beetles in one quick stab. “Look, bird, look”, I’d say and I’d lift a stone, and she’d stare, head on one side, then stab at some scuttling thing. Her limpy lumpy run.

She pushed her way into the flock by sidling up to their babies, who love to play. When the wind gets up they swoop and wheel like fighter pilots, straight up and over in a barrel rolls, and shriek and squawk. They’re loud. She got a couple of pecks but they let her into the edges, then nearer, till she was picking right beside them. Then, one late afternoon, the hawk came lazy-flapping and they took off to the magpie tree and we were counting… six, seven, then just a little behind – eight! The night she moved out, every five minutes we’d say, “She’ll be fine”, and “She knows how to take cover”, and, rather firmly, “They’ll look out for her”. Fret as we might, it was out of our hands.

She’s fine. Four or five times a day, she comes in flapping, squawking for food. “Hungry, bird?” I say, “hungry bi-rd”, kissing her head so I can breathe in her smell of tar and dust. “Want some hungry-bird?” and she opens her beak and shrieks. When she’s tired, she tucks herself into the side of my leg and a sandy lid slides over one eye. Then the other, and she dozes, safe.

She’s come in just now, stretched herself down and out on the sill, twisted, and I post on Twitter, “Not dead, sleeping”, because she looks so flat-out weird, long may she stay.

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