Death as Close as

This bird showed up Thursday and acted somewhat oddly, hanging about the suet on the birdbath. Magpies are large creatures and tourists to Alberta are often in awe of them, exclaiming “What’s that beautiful bird?” (Ian Tyson once wrote a humorous song called “Magpie” and suggested it as the national anthem for the province. I can remember singing the chorus with him and an audience at an outdoor ESO concert. Very funny.)  For most residents, magpies are annoying loud, tricky to get rid of when raising a family, and often seen as predators–attacking baby birds or eggs in the spring.

Small birds are sometimes found dead in the yard; others of varying sizes swept up in the cedar bushes in the spring, once in a while a robin. Homeowners get used to finding these quiet, unexpected winter deaths during spring cleanup. The magpie that showed up Thursday was acting oddly and, although he could still fly from the yard to the tree twenty yards over, you could tell he wasn’t ‘right’ because he returned to the suet tray on the birdbath. He gradually turned to hopping around the ‘feeding tree’ picking up food off the ground.

Friday he was back in the morning over by the fence in a snowdrift close to a hollow, being harassed by another magpie. After the other bird gave up attacking or trying to motivate the magpie, it hopped into the hollow for a couple of hours. there would be no more flights out of the yard. I’ve seen outcasts before and know how some birds or animals will turn on their kind if weakness or illness is perceived. And after a day of watching an injured or ill creature, one starts to identify with them and look out for them. I put an extra suet tray on the ground by the tree for easier access when the bird returned to feed. Which it did finally.

Yesterday was Friday the 13th, and the magpie lingered by the tray as the afternoon deteriorated, going into the overnight storm. Around suppertime, I could no longer see it, and opened the patio door. It was lying quietly in the closest window well, out of the wind and snow. You could pull for it, but I had a sense of foreboding all evening as the storm set in. This morning I looked out and snow had enveloped the yard. the storm was past. I slid back the patio door and peered out. The bird was quite still and on its side, quite, serenely, dead.

In Jack London’s story “To Build a Fire”, the male protagonist goes off to sleep in the snow, gradually losing consciousness. I thought of how this must have been the case with the magpie and so many dead birds previously discovered. It had had a final meal, flown or hopped into the window well to seek some warmth and protection from the house, and gradually succumbed to the peaceful sleep of chilly death. I was grateful that the cat who frequents our yard did not apparently find the bird overnight, its feathers intact. There are, occasionally, such mercies in quiet, private deaths sometimes.

There is something pathetic about rolling a lifeless body of something that once sliced the air with its bulk and colour onto a shovel and dropping it into a common garbage bag for strange shouting men to chuck into a truck on pickup day. And many mysteries in the wake. What was wrong with the bird? Did it know it was in trouble? What pain or suffering had it known? Why did it pick this yard and window well to die in on Friday the 13th?

Death is an old ‘acquaintance’ of mine. I got to know it pretty well at the tender age of 18, working as a nursing orderly at Winnipeg General, sometimes preparing and transporting the dead from the wards to the morgue. That pretty much took out a lot of mystery of vis-à-vis death for me. I have seen and experienced it since, notably in the passing of both parents. I have no illusions about it and I have long been unafraid of it, having seen enough of it at an early age.

And always, it ends with a plastic bag of some form whether for bird, animal, or human. The body and what was a life is carefully and safely removed. And the passing experience forgotten about usually soon thereafter. One is only left to ponder what was, what had been, and why. In that, whatever remaining mystery or story.

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