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Scavengers

Magpies and a coyote take advantage of a carcass on a hillside in the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park.

I never thought I’d say I missed magpies, but for the last several years the rakish black-and-white birds have been rare sights in my corner of northeastern Montana.

Folks who know more about birds than I do say their absence is probably a result of the deadly mosquito-borne malady West Nile Virus. The virus affects members of the Corvid family, including crows, ravens and magpies.

But slowly, one bird at a time, the showy ruffians are returning to this country, and their reappearance reminds me of the best, and the worst, of these curious critters.

For instance, I have forgotten how persistent a hungry magpie can be. These are descendents of the same birds that snuck into the tents of the Lewis and Clark Expedition to steal strips of meat drying on jerky racks. In our modern age, they’ve shadowed my home butchering activities, and last year I watched a parliament (the name for a flock of magpies, so-called because they appear to hold court for each other’s entertainment) of magpies hover over some object in the thick sagebrush. The object revealed itself to be a mountain lion, its winged entourage obviously aware of its ability to make meat for their benefit. Their presence probably didn’t boost the predator’s success.

Magpies have a deserved reputation as thieves and hoarders, and this is the season they are at their most felonious. They will raid the nests of other birds, eating eggs and chicks or dismantling nests to obtain building materials for their own slapdash hovels.

So why do I retain a soft spot for these rascals? I don’t know. But their presence completes my world. They are scrappy survivors, cheeky blokes that do our dirty work, even if they squawk and gossip as they clean up roadkill and polish off our trash.

There’s an old English superstition that suggests you should doff your hat anytime you see a magpie. That’s a little too formal for me, but a knowing tip of your cap is a fitting tribute for these diabolical scavengers that seem always on the verge of telling a very dirty joke.

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