By Denis O’Connor

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

BELOW our bird feeders is a wire cage, bought to keep squirrels and pigeons from devouring the seeds falling from above. It works with the pigeons but is totally useless against squirrels which easily pass through.

In recent weeks a magpie has started to visit the feeders, poking its head through the gaps in the cage to pick up fallen sunflower seeds. On this occasion it arrived to find a squirrel in residence and proceeded to persecute the squirrel relentlessly, poking its lethal bill through the gaps, first from the sides, then from the top, driving the panicking squirrel from one side to the other of the enclosure. Eventually my wife, watching the confrontation, took pity on the squirrel and opened a window. The magpie flew off and the squirrel fled.

On a previous occasion, she watched a magpie surprise a squirrel in the act of drinking from one of the ponds, causing the terrified rodent to dive into the pond to escape.

Last year, I intervened to drive away a pair of magpies attacking a hedgehog on the pavement, pecking at the hedgehog’s legs while the unfortunate creature, perhaps already ill for hedgehogs abroad in daylight often have a problem, rotated but seemed unable to either curl up or make a run for it.

Magpie behaviour can often be explained by a desire to drive off a competitor for food, as in the case of the squirrel, or to attack a weakened animal seen as potential prey, as with the hedgehog. However, some of their attacks sometimes seem to arise from sheer devilment.

I well remember watching a pair of magpies baiting a herring gull, itself possessed of a razor-sharp beak, on the ridge of a Manchester rooftop, taking turns to dart in to peck at the gull from either side provoking a retaliatory lunge, easily avoided by the agile magpie while its partner pecked at the gull’s exposed rear. The game lasted five minutes until the gull fled.

On a trip to China a few years ago, I was admiring a pair of saker falcons perched on adjacent electricity pylons, when a magpie appeared and fearlessly attacked one of the falcons. Given that a saker is bigger than a peregrine, either of the falcons could have outflown and killed the magpie but even here the falcon flew and disappeared over the horizon with the magpie still in pursuit.

Magpies will attack anything. The photo, taken in Lower Wharfedale below Harewood, shows a magpie contemplating violence against a pair of red kites.