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Taken By Water

Efforts to parent are all around on Mill Creek. They start early, before leaves are on the trees, with the magpies flying back and forth repeatedly across the yard carrying just the perfect sticks to refurbish last year's nest. It's obvious when chicks hatch and babies are born because the noise level around here goes way up. It begins at first light. Everybody is hungry. They make their needs known, and there is lots of activity around getting everyone fed. The harried parents pluck, pull and gulp grubs, worms and bugs to nourish their demanding hatchlings.

The creek's volume is up in more ways than one. Since the weather has warmed, the constant sound of high, rushing water from the newly melted snows adds to the busy atmosphere. All the local creeks are so extremely swift and dangerous that, sadly, four young people have died in just the last two weeks in drowning accidents, more than usual at this time of year.

When the baby birds leave their nests, chaos is everywhere. A lone duckling rushes through the yard, frantic to find its mom that calls for it from up the creek. Driving becomes a jerky experience, as one brakes to avoid running over that last little quail crossing the road with its family.

The magpies particularly fascinate me. They are the loudest birds in the area, and their squawks and chatter are not the most pleasant sound to the ear, but they seem to have an amazing communication system. I have developed a great appreciation for them as the guardians of this place. When they create a ruckus, I'd better go see what's going on because it means that there is an intruder. One time two ravens were about (I never see ravens here) and around 20 magpies suddenly showed up from I don't know where to pester the black strangers with a chorus of gravelly calls and dive bomb tactics until they grudgingly flew off.

Yesterday, as I sat on the deck eating my morning cereal, I noticed a large, chubby magpie sitting on my sundial. It was apparently a baby who looked just like its parents except he had a wider black beak, short tail and stunted wings. The two parents were positioning themselves in the tree branches nearby obviously encouraging it to fly, but the baby would have none of it. It would just open its beak and say "yap-yap" like a baby would say "ma-ma" or "da-da." Even as my dog got near to sniff the fledgling, it would not budge.

Magpies, related to crows, are very intelligent. One of the parents impressed me with its strategy to distract the dog by swooping low over its head. The pup chased after it and lost interest in the chick. I watched for a long time because I am always interested to see how other parents handle a tough situation, but when the chick refused to budge, I finally gave up and went about my work.

At lunchtime, I noticed the baby had moved several yards and was now perched in the plum tree. Those parents were still working hard, calling and cajoling, as noisy as ever.

Later in the afternoon I discovered that instead of flying up, the baby was on the ground under the plum tree. One parent landed near it and walked over and fed the bird by regurgitating into its open mouth. Refreshed, the baby started toddling toward the creek's edge only feet away.

I watched with anticipation and then concern as both parents flew into the trees on the opposite side of the creek. They continued to call their young one, who had wandered into the tall burdock and unmown grass just inches from the rushing, high water. It clearly looked distressed as it opened its beak to yap-yap-yap-yap like a scared child calling mommy-mommy-mommy-mommy. The situation did not look good, and I was riveted. My heart raced as I could see the disoriented baby's panic growing, and in that moment it launched upward and flapped its short wings as fast as it could with all its might to fly toward the parents. It made it half way across the creek before falling in to be swept swiftly downstream. I could see its little black beak above the froth still opening and closing. All became instantly silent. The parents had immediately stopped calling.

I rushed to the water's edge to see if there was anything I could do, but the baby bird was white belly up, its body floating in circles with other debris and drift wood in the eddy. The parents were nowhere to be seen. All remained quiet for the rest of the afternoon. Hours later a dark thought occurred to me as I briefly speculated whether the baby had been infirm in some way, and these smart parents with the ability to plan a successful distraction for a dog had coaxed their chick to its death.

Witnessing this chilling event brought to mind the two families I know who have each lost a young child to swift and devastating drowning accidents. Just such a quickly passing moment on a beautiful, warm day had occurred in their lives and forever changed them, leaving their hearts broken with permanent, unfathomable grief to cope with. Their anguish is constant, as are the thoughts of "what if?" and "if only?." When a life is taken by water we are instinctively unnerved, left to wonder at its powers and to guess at all the ways things might have been different.

Merry Harrison is a clinical herbalist, teacher, author and wildcrafter.
For class schedule and to ask questions: www.millcreekherbs.com

Reprinted with permission: Catalyst Magazine

Other Creekside articles...

Waiting For Spring  •  Nine Hawks  •  Infestation  •  Backyard History  •  Slammed  •  A Backyard Wilderness

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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