“One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told.
Eight for a wish,
Nine for a kiss,
Ten for a bird,
You must not miss”
– Old English Nursery Rhyme
Magpies, those gobby larrikins of the sky, have long being associated in Britain and Europe as harbingers of doom and portent. This is due to their familial connections – there’s always a black sheep lurking in every family – or in this case, a crow. Magpies, of course, are in the Corvidae family, which includes crows and ravens.
Historically, people have not held nice thoughts about these charcoaled lovelies.
Think a murder of crows, or an unkindness of ravens. It wasn’t just Edgar Allen Poe who had issues with ravens. These birds, carrion feeders, were associated with war and death. They got a bit of a bad rap, bless them.
Not so for our Australian burblers, however. Although sharing the same name and several characteristics of its British brethren, our humble maggie is a rather different breed altogether. Closer in relation to the Australian Butcher Bird and Currawong, the melodic overtures of these cheeky chappies has made many an expat living abroad shed a tear of homesickness. Musically talented, definitely.
But are they a flock of angels in the sky or a pack of demons in the vines?
We’ll get back to the collective noun for magpies a little later, for now, though, let’s explore the good, the bad and the ugly of these pied pipers and why they are an asset in the vineyard.
The Humble Maggie
Often associated with the swooshing wings of rage coming at you from a great height and an even greater level of fury, magpies are the quintessential Australian bird that blends into the background of our day to day lives. Spread throughout most of Australia, they tend to live in large groups and stick to a defined territory.
So are they a vineyard terror?
It’s a mixed review on that front. Whilst being omnivorous and occasionally partial to a juicy grape, magpies don’t account for much damage to the fruit yield in a vineyard, according to Reid Bosward, winemaker and overseer general of South Australia’s Kaesler Wines. Reid is a fan, as there is more than meets the (very intelligent) eye when it comes to maggies.
“A lot of people want to get rid of magpies because they eat the fruit. But we’ve calculated that a magpie’s diet over the course of a year when the fruit is ready to be eaten is minuscule. I think they are taking around 100 to 200 kilos as a collective. Which, for the benefits of what they bring us, is a really cheap deal.”
When it comes to avians in vineyards, as it turns out, not all birds are created equal.
The boom box bird scarers of the 90s have given way to slightly more sophisticated and micro-ecological ways to ensure viticultural health. Sure, you don’t want a flock or should we say, a crackle of cockatoos descending on your fruit and going nuts. But attracting the right kind of avian pal can make a significant difference to the quality of the end product.
“The magpie is a beautiful bird for our area. We actively encourage them! Yes, magpies do eat fruit but they don’t peck holes in fruit like a lot of other birds do. They actually take whole berries. I don’t mind them taking whole berries because it doesn’t create botrytis or vinegar problems.”
Aggro in the Sky
It’s certainly something to ponder come August as the swooping swoosh of death comes bombing for your eye. Reid, laughing, acknowledges the territoriality of magpies, but sees it as a valuable asset.
“The other great thing about magpies is they are actually territorial. So they will defend this area like there is no tomorrow! No other bird is allowed in this area. So all the nasty birds that peck holes in the fruit and make things go sour, the magpies make sure they stay away.”
The vineyard ethos of Kaesler – that of sustainability and a focus on ‘green’ ecology practices that rely on biodiversity plays to the magpie’s favour too. But to Reid, it’s more of a symbiosis.
“We have had a lot of trunk disease here in the past. But come 5:00 pm, every single row of vines will be occupied by a magpie, working their way down. They’ve got a long beak that they get up underneath the bark, where all the borers are and they will actually take out the bug.
What they do for us, by taking all the insects out, is immeasurable. We haven’t had to use any insecticides for the last 15 years. Not for any reason other than the fact that we haven’t had insects. We haven’t had insects because of the magpies.”
The combination of green eco-friendly management and lack of pesticides make for an organic vineyard, but this isn’t an accreditation Kaesler are pushing for.
“We are essentially organic in our methods, but we’re not chasing certification. We are just very observant with what we are doing with nature. Nigel van der Zande, our vineyard manager, actually has a big green stripe down his back.
He’s nature boy.
He watches this stuff and he really understands it, he understands the Kaesler ecosystems. Nigel knows that if the soil is healthy, then the grubs come. If the grubs come, the birds come. If the magpies come, they eat the insects. We’re magpie certified.”
Looking at the bursting health of the vines and observing the magpie crew assembling down the lines, you can’t help but feel charmed. It’s a nice feeling. A sentiment Reid agrees with:
“Nature is more powerful than any spray. That sounds like a bit of a cliche but nature will sort things out quicker than any spray can.
Nature is faster reacting.
So whatever comes in here that is going to harm us this year, we might get touched up and lose 5% of our crop because of it but, we’ll definitely get that back in spades by allowing something to come in and take that out. So, we’ll always lose a little bit but we will always get it back. And it just feels nicer. It feels nicer.”
We promised you a noun earlier in the piece. The collective noun for a group of magpies?
There are several. They vary from sinister and somewhat biblical associations to more suitable monikers for our cheery warblers of the sky and the unsung (excuse the pun) heroes of the vineyard.
So a tiding of magpies?
Not for us, old friends. At Kaesler they prefer to call them something altogether softer and more genuine in meaning: a charm of magpies.
It just feels nicer.
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