Korean magpie

Photo credit: Yoo Chung.


Magpies know their own faces. Put a mirror in front of them, and they know it’s them, and not another bird. During one particular study, scientists placed a white mark on the chest of a captive magpie named Gerti. The mark, situated just below Gerti’s beak, was only visible in the mirror. Gerti, the clever bird that he was, noticed the mark immediately, and he began to claw at it, using his reflection as a guide.


As far as we know, only a few species can recognize their own reflections—Asian elephants, chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, bottlenose dolphins, killer whales, humans, and magpies. Thus far, mirror-recognition studies have focused on the European magpie (Pica pica), but it’s likely that their new-world counterpart, the black-billed magpie (Pica hudsonia), has similar abilities.


Black-billed magpies are some of the most common birds in the interior west. They fly in short bursts, and their wings flick out like paper fans, exposing glossy, ivory-white undersides. A deep, jeweled blue runs along their sides and all the way down their tails. As magpies pump through the air, their long tails sail behind them, like pieces of blue-black ribbon aloft, and wavering.


They live among us, in small towns, suburbs, and cities. One can see them hopping across lawns, or swooping down over parking lots, their iridescent tails streaming behind them. To some, magpies are thought of as troublemakers—they’re slandered as thieves, and pests, because, at times, they dine on our blueberry patches, or snatch pretzels from our picnic tables.


Admittedly, magpies are opportunists. Unlike many other birds, magpies can smell, and they use this sense to help with their thievery. They steal meat from the mouths of coyotes. They scavenge ticks from the backs of moose. And, if they come upon more ticks than they can eat, they’ll store their catch for later, keeping the ticks alive so they can reproduce.


Perhaps because of the magpie’s trickster image, many humans feel animosity towards them. A quick YouTube search for “magpies roosting” turns up, not magpies roosting, but videos of dead magpies, laid limply on the soil, often next to the guns that shot them. One video is titled “Air Rifle Hunting – Magpies Pest Control”. Another is called “Air Rifle Hunting. Another Magpie in The Bag.” Yet another is called “Should You Hate Magpies?”


Few humans appreciate the magpie’s guttural squawk, which is a call similar to that of its cousin, the crow. Like crows, magpies are social, and brave—if provoked, they’ll stand up to owls, hawks, and other raptors, through a group-attack behavior known as “mobbing”.  In the bird world, magpies are both fearless and feared. Smaller songbirds hide from them, and, because of this, many bird-lovers shoo magpies from bird feeders.


To some, magpies are associated with superstition. In the British Isles, it’s considered bad luck to see a magpie flying alone. Magpies mate for life, and, if all is well, they rarely separate from their partner.


Magpie couples spend five months building nests from branches, roots, leaves, and grass. Often, multiple magpie families nest in the same trees or shrubs, forming colonies that can number in the hundreds. At night they roost together for protection and companionship.


Chicks stay with their parents for about two months, and then they fly out into the world, banding together with other young magpies in the community. In spring, unmated magpies meet up in congregations known as “Magpie Parliaments”, where they have the chance to mingle and find their mates.


When a magpie dies, whether by fault of a gun, car, or natural causes, his fellow magpies hold something like a funeral service. The first magpie to discover the body calls wildly—yelling, crying. A circle of magpies forms around the body. They stand watch over their deceased friend for hours. They fight off foxes or coyotes who threaten to take his body away. All the while, their cries of distress continue, again and again, over and over, their necks hunched, their eyes locked on their friend. Very carefully, they nudge his body with their beaks, grooming his feathers, tugging at them, remembering their particular sheen and softness. Their movements are slow, and full of deliberation. Every so often, they nudge him again, gently, with the edges of their claws, in a desperate attempt to stir him awake. At dusk they take his body in their beaks and drag him to a safe, covered spot beneath a bush. His mate lingers at his side, still plucking desperately at his feathers. At last, when the sun falls, she says her one, final good-bye, and, heavily, emptily, she flies away, and she leaves him.


The Fern Tree


You do not sleep, fern tree. You stand awake, with moonlight on your shoulders. Behind you, Venus descends, slows, and dissipates, like a stone into water, but you do not move. At dawn the steller’s jays sway on your branches. Their feet clasp, and together you and the birds rustle, touched by the shallow milk of rising dew. The robins awaken. Yes, all of them. They call to each other—up-down-chip-chip-chip, in the smallness of morning.

At your feet, the creek migrates north, then east to the Willamette River. A decade ago one of your branches fell into the water. It remains there, spongy, softening, mossy. The current forms a diamond around it, and tugs it gently onward.

So, too, do your leaves join the soil. They sharpen, and crunch, and feather into lacey ghosts. The soil asks for them; demands them as a blanket so the salmonberries and the waterleaf may grow. You do not mind it, fern tree. You are blessed; you are a god, a great bridge across the forest, multi-trunked, invincible, your branches draped by thin-papered ferns that crisp in summer and glow sorrel-green in winter.  You will not die, not entirely. You will spout new trunks and the ferns will flock to you.

Two spotted-towhees rest in the elderberry bush. A cloud of chickadees joins them, along with a lone kinglet whose wings tremble like a hummingbird’s. They visit the cedars and the hemlocks; the baby ash, and your brother maples; but they do not visit you, fern tree. The jays have claimed you.

Night returns. You are silver; a strand of the moon, a keeper of wayward sunlight. Your leaves remain warm. The wind sifts in slowly, as though from the ground. You cannot help yourself; you sing your own night song, a whisper that is blue and ancient, and you join the birds in their nestling.

Behind the Fog


When I see fog, I think of sunlight. I think of the string of clear days at the beginning of each December where the sky blushes blue and cold. I think of a stream I once saw, tucked into a shore-pine forest by the ocean, how I wandered there at dawn in a sea of fog and huckleberries, how, as an owl sang curtly in the distance, I stopped to watch two swans glide like ghosts above the mirrored water, their necks bent, their eyes calm and speckled with dew. I think of a hill in town, the douglas firs who grow there, how the fog peels off their branches in the mornings, how it rises, how it lifts, how it leaves behind a rich, dark green that makes me homesick when I see it elsewhere.

Past and Future


How can we ever belong to this place? Here, lands were stolen and degraded, peoples were killed and sent away. Here, the future is threatened by rising waters, beetle-withered pine forests, dry winters; by emptiness, and loss.

What’s already happened, and what is to come–they are two stone walls on either side of us. At either end there is some sort of light, but it is milky and subdued, like the sun submerged in water.

Either way you run, the walls get longer. They stretch back to the time before humans, and forward to the time when you and I will be gone.

And what if you sit, down in this crevice, and feel the cold spread over your arm-skin, the shadow of the sun, the sun that is holy and sacred but is not your god and cannot be because it was already stolen from someone else?

And the soil, here, that is bled of life, by, not you, but your ancestors? The dark, moon-like soil that was once rich with thousands of lives? That is not yours either. You are not of it. You are not of anywhere. Not time, not place. That is the dilemma. That is how we got here.

City Life


This is not enough.

Grass, and horse chestnuts,

purple-leaved plums

and the maples whose names I do not know.

They are lovely, their leaves shaken off by last night’s wind,

but behind their nakedness is the lined gray pavement,

the dense, impermeable skin,

where my footsteps are visitors.

At night I look for the stars, but instead I find a blotched sheet of paper,

a chalkboard,

something that has been erased and left dusty with residue.

The wind here

smells of roadside oil,

of cigarettes and decaying apples,

and the smoke of a neighbor’s fire.

The leaves fall.

I believe they are the one true thing.

Underneath them is the soil.



Coyote Gulch


Down low, in the golden grass, I sit and watch the scrub oak, bled of sun, and the cottonwood, who stands below us in the canyon, his leaves immovable in the warm silence, the bright walls, the dying sun, the painted light, the circular, dry plumes of wind, the crickets and the stream, the long stripes of black against the cliffs, and I, down low in the grass, I can feel the Earth, I can smell the sand and the leaf-decay in the water, hear the slosh of my boots against mud and stone. Above us, the sky drapes itself across the cliffs, an heirloom blanket, a dying world, the sky of ancient Mars, red rock smoothed into circles and fans and waves, the imprints of an aboriginal sea, the light of stars that have since died, the dying, the long shadows, humped, human-like, as they pour into holes in the stone, the windows, the eyes, the place where the stone watches us, the place where I lay in the grass, the place where the sun turns to stone.

Desert Hill At Night


Behind their voices I hear the sky. It moves patiently but briskly, the way a deep river flows but is glass. I feel the depth of the soil; I feel its color waiting in the darkness. I follow it to the hill, weaving between the gray-night grasses, the rabbitbrush, the sage. At the top, the clouds have moved over the stars. The wind carries something empty. It is a good emptiness; the emptiness of oceans and redwood trees, of wide, old, ancient places where silence still exists. I can imagine myself alone here, standing among the sagebrush, their roundness, their whispered company. I can imagine the sky bending around me, the heat of fear and stillness in my chest.

Cathartes aura


I wait at the bus stop, in the grass, as the cars scuff by. There is a hint of sunset behind the road, behind the skyscrapers, and the houses feel empty as dawn. In this moment I look up. Three turkey vultures circle each other; they dance like kites, smooth, their shadows lengthening, their features charcoal-dark, existing only in silhouette.



Lupine smell like nothing at all. Their hooded flowers feel like paper and like rain.

Tiny ants climb their stems, up and down on the small hairs. A bee lands on a purple bud, makes its way in, and then leaves to find the lupine’s brethren.

In their roots, lupine fix nitrogen, and I imagine the bacterial lives being lived there, just beneath my feet. Lupine are technically a kind of legume, a member of the fabaceae family, and so they have been given the gift of taking nitrogen from the air and bringing it to the soil.

Their name is wolflike, from the same root as Canis lupus. But they, themselves, are delicate, and pastel, the color-makers of many meadows. They are far from elusive–how could one mistake their round whirl of leaves, and their plump bunches of pale pea-flowers? How could anyone overlook the beauty of the lupine?

The Summer Sky

I wander away from the lights. I look for the darkened air, where the bats are felt but not seen. Wildfire smoke smudges the horizon. I crunch over the grass and the gravel until, finally, I am far from the cabin. I look up. Past the smoke, in the clear zenith, vega hangs emptily, spaciously, blue-and-white, on the shoulders of cygnus, the swan. There is bootes and corona borealis. Then there is hercules and ursa major, cassiopeia and aquila. These are the marks of summer.

The wind blows through my flannel shirt. Something screeches–a great-horned owl, perched in a Douglas fir, high up there, on the edge of things. I stare through the gray fields ahead of me. I can sense the openness. It’s like standing in front of the ocean. You can feel it, the movement of air and the bending of grass. You feel that you should speak to it; ask for its forgiveness and its advice. You feel that your ancestors once crept through tall grass and followed the stars like seafarers. Coyotes sing, somewhere out there. A flash of lightning illuminates half the sky. It is silver, and cold, and it makes no sound. Is this why the coyotes are singing? The wind blows faster. Clouds sail in thin tufts across the zenith. I spin around and say good-night to them all, the summer constellations, before they are gone, before I am gone, before I turn the light on again.