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The only good magpie...

Written by Mike Bodnar, Wellington Regional Council

I don’t like magpies. They may well appear in folk tales and nursery rhymes, endearingly collecting bright shiny things, and maybe they can be taught to talk. But they’re bullies. I’ve seen them worry wood pigeons, torment tuis, and harass harriers.

I once flew a kite which had the shape of an eagle printed on it, and watched astounded as two magpies left a large macrocarpa some distance away to begin what was an entertaining but alarming aerial dogfight with the ‘intruder.’

So you’ll understand my mood when earlier this year I counted 11 magpies on our small (1.3 acre) rural property. It was time to do something about them, and I knew exactly what.

In my job managing the communications section of the Wellington Regional Council, I had become aware of methods and tools used by our biosecurity officers in dealing with pest animals, including magpies. One of those is the Larsen Trap, and it took just a phone call to get one delivered.

Two weeks later I had dispatched 13 magpies, and the surrounding area became blissfully free of the daily quardle-oodle-wardle. However, it wasn’t any fun, and for those (like me) who’ve been brought up as townies, the business of ‘dealing’ with unwanted pests can be somewhat traumatic. I share my experience here so you’ll know what you’re in for if you also want to be rid of the black and white bullies. Because in my book the only good magpie is a dead magpie.

The Larsen Trap is simply a system of five cages, the larger central one containing a lone magpie, or ‘call bird.’ You have to make sure this bird is well cared-for, with daily feeds of dog roll or similar, and plenty of fresh water. It’s also recommended to cover it at night.

It doesn’t seem to matter whether the bird actually calls or not. Within a day the local magpies flew down, attracted by the presence of the bird and by the bread scattered on the lawn around the cages. The four trap cages, with their spring-hinged doors held open by collapsible perches, were baited with more tasty morsels.

Within 48 hours we were catching magpies. They’d fly down, and once there was no food left on the lawn they’d go for the bits in the cages. Settling on the perches broke the tension holding the door open and the birds were caught.

That was the easy bit. The harder part was disposing of them in a quick and humane manner. The accompanying brochure suggested either hitting the birds over the back of the head with a heavy piece of wood, or grasping the birds firmly and banging their heads against something hard. I tried both methods with the first two birds I caught (wearing thick gardening gloves to avoid the vicious beaks) but it wasn’t as quick as I’d hoped. In fact it caused some distress both to the birds and me, which is why I elected to use a hatchet instead. I figured that if the bird’s head was separate from its body then a) it was definitely dead and b) it wasn’t suffering.

I used a chopping block to do the deed, well out of sight of the call bird and the other captives. The first time wasn’t easy, but believe me, you can’t shut your eyes while using a hatchet. I held the bird firmly in my left hand, grasping both legs and the ends of the wings all together. Like this, the bird was unable to struggle, and laying it on the block provided a clear shot.

Sorry if all this sounds a bit blunt. But neither of us suffered. It’s quick and clean (not much blood) and with one stroke it’s over. Definitely. No checking the eyes, no listening to plaintive squawks.

The Larsen trap worked brilliantly. One day I trapped a full complement of four magpies. And if you’re going to argue that it’s such a shame because they’re so intelligent, how come the call bird was stupid enough to come back and get caught again after we accidentally let it go? Go figure.

Since the trapping episode we’ve been delighted to see a definite increase in native birdlife, and others. Particularly pleasing has been extended visits by three tui. Previously they’d been too scared to come even when the kowhai was in full bloom.

The jury might still be out over whether magpies really are pests, because so much of the evidence against them is anecdotal. But Wellington Regional Council, along with many other regional councils, is in the process of gathering the first scientific data to see whether magpies really are a genuine threat to our native bird population. The early results suggest I was right.

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