Belfast Telegraph

Fur and feathers are flying in battle of the species

By Frances Burscough

My dog Bailey the bichon frisée has an enemy. In fact he’s more than just an enemy, he’s more like an evil arch-enemy or nemesis of the kind you get in comic books, except without the mask or cape or superpowers.

The tense rivalry has been growing for years and each time they come face to face they actively taunt and goad each other noisily and aggressively until I have to intervene. Before you ask, it’s not another dog, nor even a cat that causes such disquiet in my otherwise tranquil backyard. It’s a magpie. A big, cocky arrogant magpie and Bailey hates him with a vengeance.

It all started at about this time of year one early spring, when the weather had begun to warm up and the sun had started to lengthen the day. Instead of putting Bailey’s and the other dogs’ food out in their bowls in the usual spot on the kitchen, I decided to serve it alfresco on the patio in the back garden, to encourage them to stay outside and catch some rays. One such afternoon I noticed a magpie sitting on the top of the bird table, looking down at the food and hopping from foot to foot excitedly. The moment his tail was turned, the cheeky opportunist bird jumped down directly onto his bowl and helped himself.

Meanwhile the cocky corvid had retired to his perch to scoff and jeer at Bailey “Ca Ca Caaaa!!!  (Translated from magpie into English: Ha-ha-haaaaa!!”) while digesting his ill-gotten gains from a safe distance.               

This audacious heist was just the beginning of a crime spree that has recommenced every spring for years. At first I did try to foil its attempts by bringing the bowl closer and closer to the back door, but the magpie wasn’t put off and just hopped a bit nearer each time, as bold as brass. In fact I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the damn thing came strutting in through the patio doors some day and just made straight for the kitchen cupboard.

Meanwhile poor frustrated Bailey would bark and growl and jump up and down on his hind legs but the magpie just sat there, watching, mildly bemused but not at all concerned or threatened.

 It is just as well Bailey has a strong sense of instinct though, because three years ago he started to go blind. Gradually he lost most of his sight altogether and had to rely on memory and smell to navigate in and out of the house and around the garden. Of course the magpie loved seeing this and would enjoy leaping around from one perch to another, watching Bailey chase after him whilst bumping into things and getting very frustrated and agitated in the process.

Now as well as feeding the dogs outside, there’s another seasonal tradition that I do with them at this time of year. In order to get them ready for the warm weather, I always trim their fluffy coats and then, instead of throwing away the clippings, I scatter them around the garden for the birds to use to line their nests. And — until this year that is — it had always gave me the greatest pleasure to see tiny blue tits, robins and sparrows flying across the garden, carrying in their beaks these curly tufts of fur as though they had suddenly grown long white whiskers.

So that is what I did again last weekend. As soon as it was officially spring and I knew the birds would be starting on their nests, I gave the dogs a ‘number one’ shave with the trimmers and then gathered the fur together to recycle amongst the branches of my cherry tree. 

But guess who was there, already lurking in the branches ready to begin another day’s dog-baiting? You guessed it. The pesky magpie, who wasted no time filling his marauding mandibles with the canines’ crowning glory. And there was nothing I could do about it because he quickly fled like Jason with the Golden Fleece.

It’s just as well that poor old Bailey is blind. He would have gone completely ballistic if he’d seen it! “One for sorrow”  they say? Bailey would put it a bit more strongly than that.

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