Country diary: How does a magpie magpie when it has no tail? – The Guardian


Sandy, Bedfordshire: Deprived of such a versatile appendage, this magpie looks and acts very differently
Behind the five-barred gate of a farm field, most of a magpie was footering about, mostly in the way that magpies are wont to do. Step, stop, pick. Step, stop, peck. Cleverness glinted out of an eye that was watching us watching it. Does any bird have such intelligent awareness, so bold and yet so fearful? A few steps more. Still watching. But it did not walk quite like a magpie.
The bird that had painted itself into the gateway lacked one of the characteristic features of a creature that is bookended by exaggerated proportions. This unfortunate magpie was endowed with the requisite huge, hooked beak, but – for whatever reason – it was also tailless. Shorn of half its length, a dumpy version of its former self. What difference would the lack of what was after all only a fistful of plumes, a featherweight extension, make to this bird, other than its change of appearance?
The morning before, I had driven past small gangs of magpies on the Cambridge Road, dining with atrocious table manners on roadkill from the previous night. Though the window was up, I could sense their displeasure in the extravagant flicks of their tails, thrown up well above the back of their heads as they squabbled over the feast. For full effect, they would turn into nodding seesaws, dipping and raising their heads in time with a full-cocked tail.
How could this bird give full rein to its annoyance without a talking appendage? And when it took to the air, what fresh aerodynamic challenges would it face? What role does the magpie’s blue-black train normally play as a rudder and a balance, and how would this one compensate?
This bird walked without the refinements that a fully assembled magpie would make, the movements that make it a magpie. It had none of the poise that it would otherwise need to keep a tail from ever touching the ground, or give it animated prominence and a life in tiny tweaks, lifts and quivers. But in a matter of a few weeks, new feathers will surely grow and give this magpie back its old pizzazz.
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