One for the birds

For several days one spring I was witness to a drama enacted by birds.

Flying European magpie (pica pica)
Flying magpie

We lived in Brussels, in a flat four floors up, and the living room window looked out over a mature, wooded garden. Just at my eye level when I sat to eat breakfast, only about 50 m away, two magpies were building a nest in a fine chestnut tree.

I should say this was early enough in the spring that the trees did not yet have their full foliage, and I could see further into them that was possible later in the year.

Just beyond the chestnut, in a smaller tree (species unknown), two crows were also building a nest. The crows decided it was more convenient to steal building material from the magpies. They did this repeatedly.

The crows were big bully birds – bigger than the magpies – but the magpies were angry and loud and they fought back. In fact it was the noise that first attracted my attention.

Sometimes the crows would attack the individual magpies as they flew in with twigs. The two crows together would fly at the magpie from different directions. The magpie would twist and turn in the air and cry out, dropping the twig. One crow would snatch it as it fell and the other would caw derisively.

However the crows’ preferred technique was to land in the chestnut near the magpies’ nest and simply wrench twigs out of the structure. They waited for the magpies to leave on scavenging expeditions before raiding.

European Magpie (pica pica) and seriously untidy magpie nest
Magpie and nest

Almost human

While the bullying was going on I got quite engaged on the magpies’ side, so much that I occasionally opened a window and shouted at the crows myself, but neither the crows nor the magpies paid me any attention.

Generally speaking, I like both crows and magpies. I think they are both bird species with great character. I’ve seen them play in ways I recognise as almost human. I once watched a crow playing for minutes at a time with a blue plastic bottle cap, flipping it over and tossing it about. And I once saw two magpies tormenting a cat by enticing it to chase them higher and higher up in a tree and out on a branch – and then laugh at it as it failed to catch them and nearly lost its footing.

Here is your writing a challenge. Tell us about an animal drama you have observed. If you like, write it in the character of one of the animals or from the point of view of one of the animals.

Or you might go a step further and turn your story into a fable after the manner of Aesop. If you do, what is the moral you draw from the story?

Carrion crow (corvus corone)
Carrion crow trying to look innocent.

Illustration credits

The images are all from Wikimedia Commons. Flying magpie; Magpie and nest; Carrion crow

Bruce also wrote us an article about magpies and crow, which you may like to read.


  1. I love the concept of writing from the character of a bird (or any animal)! I read a delightful book years ago as part of a book group called Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife. We all got very wrapped up in Firmin and his rat family’s story.

    • Thanks for the tip Kimberly! I’d never heard of Firmin, but I just checked him out on Wikipedia and I’m fascinated. I’ll have to try and get a copy.

      There are many anthropomorphic animals in children’s literature, though fewer in adult fiction. A completely non-anthropomorphic animal tale that delighted me when I first read it is Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter from 1927. Again on Wikipedia here.

      • Thanks John. I’ve read up on Tarka the Otter – who I’d never heard of – and see there’s difficult themes (for me) – violence and death. I’m still scarred by Disney’s Bambi from childhood! Otherwise, anthropomorphized animal stories for adults totally work for me. I shall have to try one in response to your prompt.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *