Lessons from the Great Magpie War

Sing, goddess, the anger of the Magpie King
and his devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon Gaylord Focker,
fleeing to the House of Lauck to take refuge behind the couch…

— with apologies to Homer’s Iliad

The face that launched a thousand magpies.

The face that launched a thousand magpies.

Good Husband and I have lived in our house in Taos for eleven years, a 160-year-old adobe on a half irrigated acre of orchard. Our dogs, Milla and Gaylord Focker, dwell here with us. The lush grass and cool shadows of the fruit trees make for a doggie paradise, with plenty of passing cyclists to bark at on summer days.

For as long as we can remember, a family of magpies has nested each spring in the apple tree at the back of the yard. They rear their young in a giant nest of twigs that looks vaguely terrifying, as if a goblin might live in it. A friend recently pointed out it is reminiscent of something from the 1973 movie The Wicker Man, which frankly is a reference I didn’t need to contemplate.

Creepiness aside, it’s been cool to hear the peeps of the fledglings in their nest, and cool in a Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom kind of way to have a reality nature show going on behind our house. We fill the birdbath, we keep them supplied with feed. We have been happy to host them. In short, the Laucks and the Magpies have always enjoyed a peaceful coexistence.

Peaceful, that is, until this year.

One afternoon, I was hunched over my laptop in deep, writerly concentration (okay, maybe I was on Twitter), when gradually I became aware of a ruckus of epic proportions unfolding in the back yard. It sounded like ten thousand magpies had descended upon our little plot, all squawking, cawing, screeching and the frenzied flapping of wings. Alarmed, I rose from my “work” and headed to the door, where I stood frozen by a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.

At first I didn’t know quite what I was looking at. It appeared that Gaylord was running straight at me, full tilt boogie, pursued by ten thousand magpies. After a moment, I realized it was not ten thousand, but two magpies giving chase. Their shrieking and diving and wheeling just made it look and sound like there were a whole lot more birds. Also, they were pissed off enough for a multitude.

It seems Gaylord had decided (out of some perverse boredom?) that this was the year when it would be a good idea to harass the magpie contingent. He had chased a baby magpie on the ground, and the Magpie King and Queen had gone on the attack. The baby was now lying in the grass – I was sure it was dead – and Gaylord, in a startling reversal, had recovered his senses and realized he had picked on the wrong birds.

“Gaylord killed a baby magpie!” I screamed, bringing Good Husband at a run. He did his best to soothe me, and went outside to check as Good Husbands do. The baby bird was gone, and I can only hope it had been stunned and was able to return to the nest. It’s a good thing, because I was by that point teetering on the edge of Sobbing Hysteria.

We thought the battle was over, but soon learned the war had only just begun. The next morning, I went to the French doors to let Gaylord and Milla outside for their A.M. constitutional. Before opening the door, I surveyed the yard. Empty, with not a magpie in sight. But the moment Gaylord placed his paw across the threshold, the Magpie King alit on the ground three feet away and began screeching.

Photo courtesy of Tony Hisgett

Photo courtesy of Tony Hisgett

Hostilities continued daily for the rest of the week. Gaylord would sprint out the door, the Magpie King would materialize out of thin air, Gaylord would do his business in a hurry, all the while being heckled, and then gallop back into the house. I watched these antics from the doorway. I can’t say there wasn’t a comic element, for me anyway. But I began to worry that one of these skirmishes would end up with Gaylord losing an eye.

At the end of the week, I was sitting on the couch working on an article for this blog. I thought tensions had cooled, as Gaylord was napping just outside the open French doors unmolested. Out of nowhere, the Magpie King appeared, the exemplar of righteous fury. Gaylord, startled awake, bolted into the house and bravely slid behind the couch. And then it happened. The Magpie King, not quite finished with my dog, strutted casually INSIDE THE HOUSE.

I leapt to my feet on the sofa cushions and screamed as if Count Dracula himself had come for me. The Magpie King regarded me coolly, his gimlet eyes mocking. Everything in his expression said, “That’s right, you pathetic, flightless biped. Scream. Scream! Bwahahahaha!”

And I obliged him. I screamed and screamed. Then, with infinite sangfroid, the Magpie King turned and flew away.

Later, Gaylord emerged from behind the couch and lay down at my feet with his chin on my foot, as he does when he’s afraid of thunder. My heart still racing, I eyed him with a sliver of antipathy. Gaylord was beginning to look a lot like Serbia, and I was feeling a little like Great Britain, and this was all becoming chillingly reminiscent of the opening act of World War I. This morass I was slipping into – culminating with the invasion of my living room by the Magpie King – was all Gaylord’s doing. I wanted no strife with the magpies, but our dog-human treaty bound me to Gaylord’s cause.

I should mention I just finished reading Barbara Tuchman’s, The Guns of August. It’s really good. But I digress.

Strangely, this episode was followed by an uneasy truce, which continues to this day. After the Magpie King’s show of force, the magpies offered peace, and we have unconditionally surrendered. Gaylord no longer ventures anywhere near the Magpie Castle, and a demilitarized zone has been established from the apple tree to the bird bath.

Gaylord tends to do most of his napping inside now, with the French doors firmly closed. But the Magpie King still visits, strutting back and forth beyond the glass, inches from Gaylord, who can only watch submissively. There is a new message in the Magpie King’s eyes. His eyes say, “Who’s your daddy?” It’s not a question.

What I’ve taken away from all this (besides learning not to mess with magpies) is a lesson in self-confidence. The magpies have it in spades, and it’s something to aspire to. For the sake of what they hold dear, they are a force to be reckoned with. The nerve of those birds. They are magnificent.

So the next time you’re feeling low – Shaken by rejection? Creatively blocked? Smarting from harsh criticism of your “baby”? Doubting your talent? – here is a visualization for you. Just picture in your mind an 85-pound ferocious dog fleeing in terror from a 6-ounce bird. Or imagine me screaming from the couch if you prefer. Feel better?

Channel that Magpie King confidence. Embody that magpie insouciance. You are the Magpie King.

And truly, you can do anything.

Do you ever struggle with doubt in your creative work? In your life in general? How do you restore your self-confidence? Tell me your thoughts!

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6 thoughts on “Lessons from the Great Magpie War

  1. Milli Thornton

    Hahahaha! This was entertaining to the last drop. Full of drama, angst, action and laughter. (Oh, yeah, and primal screams.) That photo you found of the Magpie King is absolutely PERFECT! He totally looks like a bird not to be messed with.

    I absolutely love your takeaway about the confidence of the Magpie King. As I place my tender footsies on the dating path once again (after 15 years in a steady relationship) this visualization will, no doubt, be of great significance. 1,000% self-belief and righteous ownership of your own domain. Yeah! I want me some of that.

    Reply
    1. Judith Shaw

      Fabulous blog! And very funny as well as being totally accurate. In Australia, our next door dog Rupert the Norder Collie, had a dreadful time with magpies. The mating males saw his black and white coat as competition and dive bombed him mercilessly.

      Australian magpies are big–the size of crows, and very aggressive. During mating season the neighbors’ kids wore pots on their heads whenever they went outside. I wish I’d taken a photo.

      Anyway, Leigh, I loved your fluency and relaxed tone. I could see poor Gaylord cowering away from the magpie king. And I coul see the king swaggering around your living room.

      Write some more, quick!

      Reply
      1. Leigh Lauck Post author

        Thank you, Judith, for this wonderful comment! Poor Rupert. At first glance, I thought you said in Australia, they have magpies “as big as COWS!” And I didn’t even blink.

        Here in NM, they’re as big as crows or ravens. Big enough. And with their swagger, they may as well be as big as cows.

        Children had to wear pots on their heads?! Holy Magpie. That’s an image…and should make Gaylord feel better about himself.

        Loved, loved your thoughts. Thank you so much.

        When will I be seeing your blog?

        Reply
  2. Leigh Lauck Post author

    Thanks, Milli! Someday, perhaps I’ll write this as an epic, Tolkein-esque saga. Until then, the Magpie King is my personal totem in the face of doubt and uncertainty. I’m glad he’s yours, too! Believe me, there is enough Magpie King mojo to go around.

    1000% self-belief! Yeah!

    Reply
  3. marsha and gregory lauck

    Leigh, you continue to amaze me…your writing is so beautiful and inspiring. The illustration pictures were wonderful..sorrowful Gaylord Focker and lordly King of the Magpies. You make an “ordinary incident” into a magnificent tale! Loved it all.
    Greg

    Reply
    1. Leigh Lauck Post author

      Thank you, Greg! If you could see me, you’d notice I’m smiling ear to ear (and that’s a rather big distance to cover).

      Love you guys! 😀

      Reply

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