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Red Billed Blue Magpie

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Knowing birds in the close vicinity:

By Rajashekhar Pant

I came to know and understand quite late that our childhood friend, ‘lampuchariyaa’, whose small flight would enable us to chase her for comparatively longer distances, has a beautiful English name – Red Billed Blue Magpie (Urocissa erythroryncha). If you analyse this sobriquet, i.e. ‘magpie’ etymologically, it is suggestive of someone who is quite voluble, cunning and is condemned with the ability to consume whatever comes in her way.

The blue magpie has exactly all these attributes. A member of the crow family (corvidae), it has blue feathers with a black head, white belly and a long tail which trails loosely behind her in flights. Its beak, legs and feet may vary from red to an orangish hue. As for her tail, with bluish shade margined with white spots, it is the longest of any corvid.

A couple of decades ago, it was seen in my home town i.e. Bhimtal from March till the receding of the monsoon. However, it now has become a permanent resident and is seen round the year in our orchard in large numbers.

With an inherent preference to live in groups this bird is aggressive by nature and is known for varied calls, of which the most usual are grating rattles and high pitched whistles. It prefers to communicate with raucous and hoarse calls though capable of singing in sweet notes as well. Given an opportunity to dwell in the close company of human beings it may even go for vocal mimicry. Blue magpies don’t like to be in the company of heterogenous species and may often be noticed shooing away other birds by diving quickly while in short flight.

At times, especially in summers, magpies assemble together in the form of a meeting; such assemblies are often termed as ‘folkmotes’. As goes an old superstition, they decide and contrive the weal and woes of the neighbouring human population by doing so. A number of superstitions are also associated with their varied calls. Ornithologists suggest that folkmote is a way of selecting partners during the mating season.

In common parlance, beauty, the feminine grace or charm to be precise, is associated with innocence. A combination of beauty and shrewdness is often relegated as suggestive of something unethical and immoral -remember the fate of Mata Hari or that of Virginia Hall. I think the beautiful magpies with their inherent shrewdness have also been subjected to the same fate.