by Paul Cormacain
WHEN we got out of the car in the car park, the most noticeable thing was the chattering of a pair of magpies. It was reasonably low key, but incessant.
We saw one magpie who was moving around some low trees, apparently trying to break off sticks from the branches. All the time he kept up a chatter.
We could not see who was talking to him, but talk she did, matching expression for expression. The communication was amazing, and we were jealous we could not understand it.
Then he managed to break off a small stick and flew to an adjacent tree in which there was either the remains of a last year's nest, or the beginning of one of this year's. Then his lady love emerged from this conglomeration of twigs, and suddenly we understood all.
They were building a new nest. He was sent off to gather the materials, small branches and twigs, and she remained putting the home together.
Once I thought I heard him say to her that 'B&Q are closed dear', when he came back to the new home empty-handed. She quickly sent him off again, and this time he did not come back without materials.
It was a good working relationship. They both kept going, and this was essential to allow them to fulfil one of their main purposes for being on this earth, that of self-propagation.
They had to get together, build a safe nest, lay good eggs and hatch them. Then they had to nurture the young, feed them, protect them, train them, then send them into the world as young adults.
A bit like humans, did I hear you say?
The magpies build a nest of twigs, small branches, and a safety_ feature, a roof. How many birds do you know build a roof over their nests?
When they get it licked into shape, they add mud to the bottom of the nest. This quickly hardens. Rootlets are laid in the mud and the end result is one of the more substantial and safest nests in this country.
It may not be until May when the female lays from four to seven eggs, then proceeds to incubate. That period lasts about three weeks with the lady doing the incubation and the gentleman providing the food.
Then both parents feed the young, a full-time job as every parent knows. Imagine having seven children all the same age!
The magpie is a large crow, coloured black and white, and with a large tail. It is unpopular in some quarters and this is usually to do with its eating habits.
Partridge nests and pheasant nests have been attacked, and both eggs and young eaten by hungry magpies. It is as natural to them as a hawk eating small animals or a robin eating worms.But the pheasants and partridges are for gentlemen to kill, so gamekeepers take their toll of the magpies for daring to 'jump the gun'.
Magpies will also take the eggs and young of garden birds, and this can make them highly unpopular with some residents. I do not like this, but it is part of the magpies' nature, so normal. Sometimes folk who don't like magpies let their cats kill small birds.
Some folk theorise about the increased numbers of magpies and the decreased numbers of song birds. But no scientific proof has been put forward that magpies are responsible for reduced numbers. In theory, if small bird numbers decreased, magpie numbers would do likewise. No proof.
In the area I live there are large numbers of magpies. You just have to look out of any window, and you are nearly guaranteed to see them, singly, in pairs or more.
But you will also see great tits, long-tailed tits, coal tits and blue tits. You may see chaffinches, greenfinches, bullfinches and gold finches. Robins, wrens and hedge sparrows abound. Blackbirds, mistle thrushes, song thrushes, are all over the place.
Starlings, gulls, rooks, jackdaws, hooded crows, jays, all visit regularly. So this goes to prove that, well, I don't know what!
But maybe magpies are not all that clever. The pair building the nest were attacking living branches, much more difficult to break off than picking up already broken branches from the ground. And there were very, very many broken branches lying on the ground.
Saturday 2 March - Lisburn RSPB outing to St John's Point, Killough and Ardglass, details 9260 1864
Sunday 3 March - Would you like to see some snowy owls, eagle
owls, and great grey owls? Head for Castle Espie at 1.30, details 9187
A Spring Nature Ramble will start at Castle Espie at 2.30, suitable for families, try phoning 9187 4146
Saturday 9 daily to Saturday 23 March - Family trail around the grounds of Castle Espie to celebrate Saint Patrick's Day and the coming of spring.
Saturday 16, Sunday 17 March - National Science Week, recycling paper is the theme, 2prn, details from Castle Espie, 91874146.
Friday 22-Sunday 24 March - RSPB/Birdwatch Ireland, joint conference. An exciting agenda has been arranged for this conference to be held at the Great Southern Hotel in Rosslare.
Sunday 24 March - Ranger Ramble at Colin Glen Forest Park, at 2pm, details 9061 4115
Mother's Day Walk around the Nature Reserve at Oxford Island, who will tell you more if you phone them on 3832 2205
If you have any energy left you could join the Lagan Valley guys and discover the Mattes and Men, Main. store from 9066 2259