23 October 2006


In my family we are not maniacal bird watchers, but we do keep our feeders filled—well, Jane does—and we occasionally will grab a pair of binoculars to get a better look at a goldfinch or a pileated woodpecker. All in all, we are pretty casual in our bird-watching.

Still, I took note when I read in my Lonely Planet guide that the Liminganlahti Bird Sanctuary near Oulu “attracts more avian species than any other similar place in Finland. The wide bay is protected and funded by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).” During the “great bird migration” one can see several rare species, and up to 70 species in a single summer day. “Prominent species include the yellow-breasted bunting, a variety of wader, and the Ural Owl.” The operative word here is “summer.” I missed it.

You’d think that Oulu would derive some residual benefits from the “great bird migration.” I haven’t seen any. In the town center, and also on the university campus, the bird most in evidence is the magpie.

I have been reading about magpies. Everyone seems to agree that the second syllable comes from the Latin word, pica. The "mag" is more debatable. Wikipedia asserts that it is short for Margaret, and that magpie might be an allusion to nagging. Mag the nag. But then, Wikipedia backtracks, conceding that “It could have also been named after “Maggot” because it stole eggs and nestlings from other birds.” There is consensus, however, on the magpie’s penchant for “noisy chattering.” In Old English, it was sometimes called the chatterpie.

Setting the issue of Margaret and Maggie and Maggot to one side, I am prepared to acknowledge that it is not a particularly nice bird. Still, it is no nastier, and much handsomer, than the crow. And it is fairly tame; the magpie will let you get within a few feet. I came to appreciate the magpie when I was on sabbatical in London some eight years ago. I had never seen one before, and I did a double-take when I saw my first in a little garden off Russell Square. The attached photo, by the way, is from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They live out west in the States, which is why I had never seen one. There are also blue magpies in Finland. They’re not as good looking as the black-and-white ones. They are not even very blue, but more of a bluish gray. They hang around the campus as well.

Anyway, my office is up on the third floor of the humanities building at Oulun yliopisto. I’m told there are some 18,000 students at this university, but aside from a couple of small museums, there are very few diversions on this campus, which is a complex of heavyweight, good-enough-for-industry buildings in a sprawling research park some five kilometers north of the city. Since I keep long office hours (no internet connection at the flat), there are times when I could use some company. Most of the time I sit here staring at my computer screen. Once in a while, out of the corner of my eye, I’ll see a magpie strutting around on the roof of the building across the way—just hangin’ out, lookin’ good. I fancy the chatterpie has come round to keep me company. You could do worse.