George and I: Frieda Hughes on the Early Days of Raising a Magpie
“His warmly feathered presence was like having an emissary of the natural world grounding me daily.”
Six days after finding him the sheaths of George’s wing and tail feathers were almost all powdered off; he just had a couple of little bits left that Widget tried to nibble away. Dandruff was a daily feature of the kitchen floor; it gathered in heaps in the corners of the old, dark oak Victorian floorboards, and eddied and whirlpooled in the draught of opening and closing doors, prompting me to drag out the vacuum cleaner over and over again.
George seemed to enjoy affection, although maybe for him it was simply the need for food and warmth. But if he was out of the cage, he wanted to be close to me; my lap was his favorite place. This slowed me down terribly, as once he sat on my lap I was reluctant to move. But I had a sense that it wouldn’t be long before the chances to stroke this tiny magpie would evaporate as he developed independence.
Thinking I might never raise another magpie, I tried to keep a photographic record of me with this fascinating little bird, but it was hard to get a picture of us together, because I had to rely on the good nature of The Ex, who wasn’t the least bit interested. George, it seemed, was the competition.
Friday 25 May
For the first few days of his stay with me, I continued to see George as a magical creature. I was like any owner with a new pet: watching, worrying, fascinated as this little being did simple things, from his leg-stretching to his wing-arching. When he arched his wings, he’d bring them over his head like an angel, and he tried to clean his chest feathers, but his neck, while it stretched upwards, somehow wouldn’t let him reach his front.
Although he still screeched to be fed, he’d begun to peck occasionally at the meaty dog food that I kept topped up in dishes on the floor for the dogs, which was good, because it heralded the time when he could feed himself. Sometimes he managed to get a bit of dog meat in his beak and threw it back down his throat. I found it interesting that he developed increasingly adult habits so quickly and without any parent bird to copy. (Which was fortunate, as I was never going to demonstrate my dog-meat-eating skills for his benefit.)
Mostly, he liked company, and was very happy to sit on the table beside me, or on my lap. He was also happy just sitting in my hand as I moved around doing chores: cooking, tidying up, whatever I could do one-handed. Sometimes I held him in one hand while I painted with the other, and he’d watch my face, or my paintbrush as it moved, and seemed captivated. So was I. Of course, I realized that everything took twice as long to do with a magpie hanging off me, but I also wanted to make the most of every minute. His warmly feathered presence was like having an emissary of the natural world grounding me daily.
Today, George only fell off the kitchen table on to the floor twice. Gravity was his latest lesson. He did this a lot, as if trying to fly, but his little chin would hit the ground and he’d be in a heap. I don’t know if his fall was an intentional effort to see if he could fly or if it was just because he didn’t know what to do about the edge of the table. When I picked him up and put him on the crook of my arm, he climbed on to my shoulder and snuggled into my neck. I could feel his warm feathered body pressing against my skin.
Saturday 26 May
The Ex and I were invited out to have dinner with friends. It was the first time that I’d had to leave George at home for a whole evening. Going out to buy plants, or pots, or food for the house, I could rush back for the next feeding, but a whole dinner party would take hours. I found myself beset with anxiety for the bird: what if he suddenly got terribly hungry and I wasn’t there to feed him? What if he found out how to get part way—but not all the way—through the cling film that now swaddled the sides of his cage, and injured himself? What if he escaped and Snickers, in her excitement, ate him?
No sooner had we dressed for dinner, and left the house, than I wanted to turn around and come back home. Desperately, I thought up excuses: we had a flat tyre and the spare was missing or also flat; perhaps I’d developed an unexpected stomach bug and found myself throwing up in a lay-by. But if I did not accept invitations, I was never going to expand my almost non-existent circle of acquaintances.
All through the evening my mind was back at the house, imagining how George was. I smiled, I ate, I drank, I know I spoke to people but have no idea what I said. I hope I was a good guest; I felt warm and friendly towards the other guests, but also alien—they seemed so removed from reality for me. Inside my head I was hearing George making “feed me” noises. I made my honest excuses—I had to feed a baby magpie—and we left just slightly early, no doubt leaving behind us the impression of eccentricity.
When we got back, George was all curled up, perched on the edge of his nest, facing outwards rather than inwards; this was a new development. Snickers and Widget lay side by side in watchful attendance beside his cage, paws out in front of them, heads held high, necks taut, noses forward. I wondered if they’d moved at all since we left. George was doggy telly and they found him riveting. As soon as he laid eyes on me, George gave a loud, demanding squawk, so I fed him another mouthful of minced beef and balanced him on my shoulder, where he stayed as I made a cup of tea.
Excerpted from George: A Magpie Memoir by Frieda Hughes. Copyright © by Frieda Hughes. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Avid Reader Press.