A Murder, A Charm, A Gulp

A Murder

It must be confusing for wild animals when humans constantly grow so much tasty food, only to try and keep it all to themselves. I see it in my own garden when the various fruits become ripe. All the birds I’ve fed through the winter are suddenly competition for my harvest in summer and fall.

Magpie Lookout – Australian magpie
Artist: Lyn Ellison

I’m not fussed about sharing the cherries, plums, red currants, apples and grapes with the birds. There’s usually more than enough for all of us. But in Australia and elsewhere, vineyards can lose up to 80% of their valuable crop to starlings, rosellas, cockatoos, and thrushes every year.

Until now, common solutions to keeping birds away from the grapes included expensive netting to block the birds from getting at the goods (but which can also make spraying difficult), noisy gas cannons to shock them into flight (but which also sometimes cause fires), and reflective tape, hawk-shaped balloons and recordings of predator calls to frighten them.

But birds can get into and tangled in the netting, and as for noise and shiny or floating objects, as soon as the birds realize they won’t get hurt, they just ignore both.

I’m reminded of a hike I took in Sheffield, England a few years ago, when I saw another bird control solution in the crop fields: Individual crows, dead and hung upside down at regular intervals from wooden posts as literal scarecrows. I don’t know how effective it was on other birds, but the sight definitely kept me out of those tilled properties.

Artist: CF Tunnicliffe

A Charm

Maybe with something almost as ominous in mind, researchers at Charles Sturt University in Australia undertook a study at six vineyards in Victoria to see whether aggressive birds could be used to frighten grape-thieving birds from the vineyards.

In this case, the idea was to build observation perches for predatory birds like falcons, who would hunt vineyard thieves, and serve as a warning against hungry flocks.

For whatever reason, the falcons were not seduced by the five-meter high invitations to rest. But another kind of bird was: The mythical magpie. To be precise, the Australian magpie. I should note here that these magpies are not corvids, unlike Eurasian magpies, which are. There’s a great article here for a breakdown on the difference, and why Australian magpies are called magpies.

Be that as it may, over centuries and continents, magpies have been the subject of legends, both good and bad. They’re thieves and harbingers of death; they’re a sign of bad luck if seen alone, but of good luck if seen in groups; in many Asian countries the bird is associated with happiness, while in Native American lore, it’s a symbol of friendship and fearlessness.

For better and for worse, humans have a long-standing relationship with these birds.

Photo: TheMagpieWhisperer

It was magpies, rather than falcons, that took an unexpected liking to the high perches in the Australian study, probably because (as the researchers state) the perches provided excellent observation points for the lizards that magpies hunt.

I also read of the winery in South Australia that enthusiastically welcomes the territoriality of magpies in keeping other birds at bay. Their voracity for insects means that they pick out pests from the trunks of the vines, each vineyard row monitored by its own magpie.


A Gulp

Some of our favorite science stories are born as the results of research that sets out to find one solution and then finds another.

Researchers who had been looking to attract falcons to vineyards found that vineyards with magpie perches had a noticeable reduction in crop loss to smaller birds. In the study area, this was a reduction from 9% of the crop in vineyards areas lacking magpie perches to only 4% in the areas under the shadow of the tall wooden constructions.

Magpies might not be direct predators of smaller adult birds, but they do eat eggs and chicks of other birds, so that might be one factor as well as their simple threatening presence on the perches.


Australian magpies
Artist: Lyn Ellison

Researchers speculate that the falcons might prefer more natural looking branches to the straight perches, so a further study will test those.

Meanwhile, I am wondering what kind of impact these large birds might have overall on populations of smaller birds, insects and lizards in vineyard regions. Do the smaller birds move elsewhere? Do lizards keep down insect populations that might flourish in their absence if the magpies leave?

Viewing vineyards as agro-ecosystems rather than mechanistic crop factories changes the equations in the most interesting ways, this time offering a further strand in our long history with magpies.

There are almost as many terms for a flock of magpies as there are myths about this clever, communicative bird, and doubtless many more eco-interactions than names.

Something to ponder over my next glass of Australian wine.

*A murder, a charm and a gulp are just a few of the collective nouns we use for magpies. Murder is also the collective noun for crows, corvids like the Eurasian magpie.

The Spoils of the Day

The village of Vufflens-le-Château. All photos: PK Read

The village of Vufflens-le-Château.
All photos: PK Read

Sometimes the constant presence of natural beauty can lead to a certain forgetfulness of the visual bounty all around.

We’ve lived near Lake Geneva for a long time, and while I revel in the views of mountain and lake, I don’t always appreciate just how lovely the area can be.

Fortunately, friend, writer and local expert on the area Catherine Nelson-Pollard invited me along on a day excursion, and I got a good reminder.DSC03701

Twice a year, once in spring and once in fall, hundreds of winegrowers in Switzerland open their cellars to visitors.

I’d characterize the Caves Ouvertes event as one of the few real bargains in Switzerland: For the price is CHF 15 (around $15, or €15), intrepid wine tourists get a wine glass, a little neck pouch to carry it, a wine passport, a map, and almost unlimited tasting opportunities for as many wineries as you can visit in a day.

A free bus service takes pass-carriers from vineyard to vineyard along a number of possible routes in each wine-producing canton.

View of the Alps from Vufflens-le-Château, Switzerland

View of the Alps from Vufflens-le-Château, Switzerland

We did a short route in the canton of Vaud, which neighbors Geneva.

Swiss wines aren’t widely known outside the region. They tend to be lighter than their French or New World relations.

Production levels are generally small, and vineyards dot the lakeside, the hills and mountain foothills in small parcels. Almost all are tended by hand. This is not a business of vast profits and expandability of scale. DSC03704


A glorious day in mid-May, white clouds blown across the lake by a bise wind rendered gentle by the warm temperatures and the sunshine. Here a château, there a wall curving inward with age.


I had driven over the border from France, so my car was waiting for me back in Nyon, a short train trip from where the wine tours started.

Because I’d have to drive home later, I maintained a strict tasting regimen – small sips, lots of water, dumping the remainder of the tasting sample once I had determined whether I liked it or not. It’s the most sober wine tasting I think I’ve ever experienced. At least, for my part.DSC03713

Over the course of the afternoon, fellow travellers in other groups got ruddy faced. Someone next to me forgot the wine glass she had just put in her neck pouch and broke it against a table.

It was time to head home.

But not before buying a few bottles to share at home.

A good reminder to extend my local range from time to time, and not take its beauty for granted.

Ingredients for an excellent day: My wine pouch and glass - which I carried safely in a backpack rather than around my neck. The green wine passport, the wines, my train ticket, and a bit of old Seamus Heaney for reading on the train. Not seen here: the companionship of friends.

Ingredients for an excellent day: My wine pouch and glass – which I carried safely in a backpack rather than around my neck. The green wine passport, the wines, my train ticket, and a bit of old Seamus Heaney for reading on the train. Not seen here: the companionship of friends.