“COME SEE, MAX!” MY MOTHER cried. “Max, come see!”
My father landed on the rim of the nest and held something over me in his black beak. I’d just broken through my shell. There were several other grayish-green shells around me, all still intact. I craned my neck, grabbed the morsel out of my father’s beak, and gulped it down.
“Isn’t she the most adorable little magpie in the whole world?” my mother crooned. “Cute, cute, cute! What shall we call her?”
“Up to you, Mag,” said my father. “You did most of the work.”
“How about Maggie?”
I gawped at them in disbelief. Here I was, a minute-old magpie, with a mother named Mag and a father named Max, and they were calling me Maggie! My only consolation was that they weren’t much more imaginative with my five siblings. As my brothers and sisters hatched around me, they were dubbed Mark, Marge, Mandy, Mack, and Matt.
On a brighter note, I wasn’t just first out of the egg—I was also the first of the brood to make it to the edge of the nest.
“What’s this place called?” I asked, looking out.
“Home,” my mother said. “Isn’t it glorious, glorious, glorious?”
It was quite a view, though of course I had little to compare it to.
“What are those green things?” I said, peering straight down.
“Branches. We’re in a pine tree.”
She pointed out other pine trees, a farmhouse, a smaller structure called a henhouse, a bigger one called a barn, and two tall things with egg-shaped tops called silos. Between the silos was a glittering ribbon of blue. In the distance there were fenced-in fields, some trees with leaves instead of needles, and vast expanses of open range.
“What are the four-legged beasts?” I asked.
“Where’s their nest?”
“There,” she said, pointing her beak at the barn.
The small boxlike thing on top of the barn was called a cupola, and the thing on top of that was a weather vane. The weather vane had a bird perched on it.
“Is that a magpie?” I asked.
“That homely old thing? He’s a crow.”
Hopping onto the sunny side of the nest, my mother spread her wings and flicked her tail.
“You’re the most beautiful ma in the world,” cooed my brother Matt.
How many mothers did he know, I wondered—though, in fact, ours was pretty striking. Her black-and-white plumage had a hint of iridescent green, and her tail was long and graceful.
She and my father devoted the next few days to bringing us lovely insects and succulent bits of carrion. As our fluff turned to feathers, our parents warned us of creatures to avoid once we left the nest. “Keep a sharp eye out for eagles and foxes.” “Watch out for hawks and coyotes.” “Foxes and housecats.” “Coyotes and rattlesnakes and eagles.” “Did we mention foxes?”
As we grew, the nest got more and more cramped, and despite the looming perils, I yearned to be free of it. But the only way out of the nest was by air, and my first attempt at flying was a disaster. If not for a well-placed bough, I’d have broken my neck. I did better on my second try, however, and by the time I was a month old, I was giving my siblings flying lessons.
Life without wings must be a bitter thing. You’d miss out on not only the freedom, but the perspective. Flying lets you see from close up or far away. You can zoom up to things and, if you don’t like the look of them, zoom away. At first I steered well clear of cattle. They’re enormous, and smelly. But one day I saw my father alight on one. I fluttered down and landed gingerly beside him.
“They’re so dull, they don’t mind,” he said. “Dig in, Maggie.”
The beast was covered with ticks. It was a feast.
Horses and dogs pick up ticks as well, but horses are less docile than cattle, with dangerous tails, and dogs are absolute monsters, to be avoided at all cost. Though humans pick up fewer ticks, I developed a soft spot for them anyway. The silly creatures were always discarding tasty garbage.
By summer my whole clutch had left the nest for good. Sadly, the creek that wound between the silos dried up, so we had to drink from the cattle trough. Blech! And except for a few trees, the whole landscape turned dull brown, with dust devils swirling across it. Then came winter, and everything turned stark white. The days were short and cold, the nights long and even colder.
The cattle huddled in the barn. One day I noticed steam leaking out of the cupola. The homely old crow was still on the weather vane, and he was more than twice my size, but crows hadn’t been on my parents’ list of creatures to avoid, and I couldn’t see why he should hog all the heat. Besides, I’d become as handsome as my mother, and I figured he might be flattered by a visit from someone so much better-looking.
I flew over and landed on the cupola. The steam felt wonderful, even if it stank, but the crow glared down from the weather vane.
“Scram,” he said.
“Why?” I said. “There’s plenty of room.”
“I can’t abide magpies.”
“What’s wrong with magpies?”
“They’re empty-headed chatterboxes.”
I flew off and found a starling perched on the ice-glazed swing set behind the farmhouse.
“What sort of reputation do magpies have?” I asked.
“Thieving hoarders,” the starling said.
This wasn’t very flattering, but at least it didn’t confirm the crow. I flew over to a thrush poking around by the garbage cans behind the house and asked her the same question.
“Empty-headed chatterboxes,” she said.
A buzzard on a telephone pole gave me the same answer. I returned to my favorite ponderosa pine to nurse my bruised ego. At sunset I tucked my head under my wing as usual, but I couldn’t sleep. Thinking back, I realized my parents and siblings did chatter a lot. I remembered my mother calling home “glorious, glorious, glorious.” Now that I’d experienced a sweltering, dull-brown summer and a snowy, sub-zero winter, I had to question that. But even if some magpies didn’t think before they spoke, did that mean I was like that?
In the morning I flew to the cupola, determined to prove the crow wrong, but he wasn’t on the weather vane. While I was basking in the smelly warmth, I spotted him down below, walking out from between two bulging roots of an old cottonwood tree. I figured he must have a food cache there. Out on the sunstruck snow he opened his impressive wings and pushed off.
The lower part of the weather vane was four arrows pointing in different directions. The top part was shaped like a horse. The horse moved in the wind and squeaked when the crow landed on it.
“Scat,” the crow said.
I ignored him. He ruffed up his feathers, doubling his size. I crouched, ready to take off. Down below, a door banged. A human came out of the farmhouse, followed by a dog. They got into one of their vehicles. It rumbled to life, spewing a bluish cloud into the clear air, and rolled away, the tires kicking up the dry snow just as they kicked up the dust in the summer. At the end of a long straightaway the vehicle passed through a gate and turned left.
By the time the vehicle was out of sight, the crow had deflated to his normal size. I stayed put for about an hour, till I was nice and toasty, before flying away.
When I returned to the cupola the next morning, the crow was gone again. Like the day before, he soon emerged from his food cache under the cottonwood and flapped up to the weather vane. He gave me a sour look but didn’t ruff up his feathers. I warmed myself for an hour or so, keeping my beak resolutely shut.
This went on for a week. I never said a word on the cupola—till one day a sharp cracking sound startled me into blurting out, “What was that?”
“A rifle,” the crow said.
Not wanting to sound empty-headed, I didn’t ask what this was. Before long a human wearing a cap with earflaps came hustling around the side of the barn. Earflaps lifted a long, glinting thing to his shoulder, and another crack rang out.
“Missed again,” the crow said, chuckling.
A flash of red crossed one of the snowy fields.
“There was a fox in the henhouse,” the crow said.
So that was a fox, I thought, remembering my parents’ warnings.
The next morning I had to wait out a blizzard, and by the time I arrived at the cupola, the crow was on his weather vane. He didn’t look particularly annoyed, so I asked him his name.
“Jackson,” he grunted. “You?”
“Maggie the magpie?”
“I know,” I said with a sigh.
The next day was too windy to do anything but huddle on the lee side of my ponderosa pine. But the wind died down overnight, and the following day I rejoined the crow atop the barn.
“Quite a blow,” he commented.
Though the temperature was well below zero, I sensed him thawing toward me. “How long have you lived at home, Jackson?” I asked.
“Here. This place.”
“You mean the Triple Bar T?”
“The Triple Bar T?”
“You never checked the gate?”
I did now, flying straight out the long driveway. Over the gate was a sign emblazoned with: = T.
The next day I asked him what the weather vane was for, and he used it to teach me north from south and east from west. To the south there were large bumps on the horizon. These were called the Beartooth Mountains. Beyond them was a place called Wyoming. I asked if Wyoming was as big as the Triple Bar T.
“Bigger,” Jackson said. “The Triple Bar T’s just a ranch. Wyoming’s a state. We’re in the state of Montana.”
“Is Montana bigger than Wyoming?”
“What’s that way?” I asked, pointing my beak to the west.
“Is Montana bigger?”
“And that way?” I said, pointing north.
“No. But Canada’s not a state, it’s a country.”
The discomfiting truth was sinking in: I was empty-headed.
The cupola became my school. I learned a lot about geography—and other things too. One day, for example, I asked Jackson why cattle were so dull, and he explained that they have no souls.
“Only winged creatures have souls.”
This made perfect sense. “What about chickens?” I said. “They have wings, but they can barely fly.”
“A question I grappled with, myself,” he said, giving me an almost appreciative look. “After conversing with a few, I concluded they don’t.”
“How do you know so much, Jackson?”
“I don’t. At least compared to my friend.”
I was surprised to hear he had one. Most crows are sociable and hang out in gangs, but Jackson seemed very solitary. I’d heard other crows cawing to him, but he never answered.
“Who’s your friend?” I said.
“Miranda,” he said.
Miranda! If only my parents had had a little imagination, I could have had a beautiful name like that. “She’s a crow?” I said.
“What’s a parrot?”
“A tropical bird—stunningly beautiful. Humans keep them in cages. But hers was by the window, and in the summertime, when the window was open, we talked up a storm. I picked up a lot, especially about humans. She even taught me their language.”
This was astounding. Their language was very tricky. “She’s not in a cage anymore?”
“She’s free now.”
“But you still see her?”
“We talk every day.”
Though I couldn’t help being jealous of the parrot’s name and abilities, I hoped to meet her, but I sensed Jackson might be stingy with her company. I decided to keep my eye out for places he went other than the weather vane and the food cache. If Miranda was a tropical bird, she might well live in the barn, out of the cold. But in the winter the barn was shut up tight.
Eventually the snow began to melt. One day the doors to the hayloft swung open. But when I flew in, all I saw were a couple of bats, a gang of swallows, and hundreds of smelly steers.
The cattle soon came out to graze in the fields. Chicks started bumbling around on the coop’s chicken-wired porch. Humans started doing all sorts of noisy things around the place. They shouted at one another a lot, and thanks to Jackson’s coaching, I began to decipher some of their words. As spring progressed, they set up a big scale to weigh livestock for the market. They shouted out the weights, and little by little I deciphered the differences. By summer I was a whiz at numbers.
Even noisier than their shouting was their target practice. Earflaps set up a target and showed a smaller human in a red cap how to fire the rifle at it. The silhouette on the target was a lot bigger than a fox, more like a large dog.
“I thought humans were fond of those fiends,” I said.
“I believe it’s a wolf,” Jackson said. “Miranda told me they’re worried about them.”
“What’s a wolf?”
“They’re like dogs, only wilder and more ferocious. They kill cattle and sheep. The ranchers hate them.”
“Do they kill birds?”
“If they could catch us, they probably would.”
“Do they live around here?” I asked uneasily.
“The ranchers wiped them out a long time ago.”
“Then why are they worried?”
“Because of Yellowstone,” Jackson said.
Yellowstone, I learned next, was a national park just south of the Beartooth Mountains, mostly in Wyoming. Certain humans wanted to reintroduce wolves there—to restore the “balance of nature,” whatever that meant. The ranchers were dead set against it, but according to Miranda, the wolf lovers had prevailed, and now the ranchers were afraid the reintroduced wolves might venture out of the park and attack their livestock.
But I had more pressing concerns than creatures I’d never laid eyes on. Of my brood, four of us had made it through our first winter. A hawk had picked off Mack last summer, and not long afterward Mark had ended up flattened against the radiator of one of the humans’ vehicles. But now, as the leaves unfurled on the cottonwood tree, Matt and Mandy each paired off, and the two new couples started building nests of their own. Though I liked to think of myself as different from my siblings, I’d always been first at everything and disliked suddenly slipping behind. A handsome young magpie named Dan kept pestering me, saying how pretty my tail feathers were. I gave in.
The nest Dan built in my favorite ponderosa pine had a waterproof hood of interwoven twigs. It put my parents’ nest to shame. But he no sooner finished it than he started filling it with useless odds and ends collected from around the ranch: wadded-up gum wrappers, screws, washers, pennies, bottle caps. When I asked what the trash was for, he said, “It’s pretty!” This totally undermined his compliments on my tail feathers. I got the queasy feeling that he fit the “thieving hoarder” profile. Every time I chucked something out, he retrieved it, so when the eggs came there was barely room for them.
Dan refused to do any egg sitting. I was stuck in the nest night and day with all his bric-a-brac. He did bring me food, but my ordeal went on for weeks. With the melting snow the lovely ribbon of blue reappeared, but I couldn’t even go down for a drink. Interesting bird species whizzed by, but I couldn’t find out if they were flying up from the south or down from Canada. Meanwhile I had to watch my single sister, Marge, doing loop-di-loops between the silos. Worst of all, I didn’t get to chat with Jackson.
I was looking forward to naming the baby girls—Dan had dibs on naming the boys—but when the eggs hatched there was only one girl. Dan named the boys Danny, Denny, Dash, Del, and Dave. I named the girl Anastasia. I was run ragged foraging for the six of them. And then I had to help teach them to fly. What a relief when they finally left the nest for good!
“We did a pretty good job, don’t you think?” I said.
“Want to double down?” said Dan.
“Get started on another clutch.”
“Another clutch!” I cried. “Are you crazy?”
“Lots of magpies do two clutches a year,” he said with a defensive flick of his tail. “But if you insist we can wait till next spring.”
His assumption that we’d still be together in the spring shouldn’t have surprised me. A lot of magpies mate for life. My parents had always been inseparable. But the thought of spending my whole life with Dan and his junk made me shudder.
The next day I flew over to the cupola.
“Been a while,” Jackson said.
“Hatchlings,” I explained.
“How are they?”
“Gone, thank goodness. How are you?”
“Um, I was wondering . . . have you always been single?”
“Depends how you define single. Why do you ask?”
“Well, Dan was talking about having more kids next spring—and it’s sent me into a tailspin. Is something the matter with me?”
“For most magpies that would be a bit odd. But, of course, if you were an ordinary magpie, I wouldn’t be talking to you.”
This cheered me up some.
“The thing is, it’s hard to be different and the same at once,” he said, reading my mind. “You generally have to opt for one.”
I suppose I’d wanted to be both. But trying to be like my siblings had just made me miserable. “Would it be disloyal of me not to stick with Dan?” I said.
“Well, if I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s this: you can’t be loyal to others if you’re not loyal to your own nature first.”
I was touched by his sharing his wisdom with me. I almost felt like hopping up and giving him a peck on the cheek, but of course he would have been appalled by a display like that, so I decided to get him something nice to eat instead. I flew over to the cattle pen and settled on one of the steers.
As I was storing ticks in the pouch under my tongue, a flash of brilliant blue fell from the sky and landed on a nearby wire fence. The fence was electric, but I swear the current hopped over and shivered through me.