Magpies - The Master Builders

Esther Woolfson

24 May 2013

The award-winning nature diarist Esther Woolfson celebrates the signs of summer in the second of her guest blog posts for Friends of the Earth. Read her spring blog here.

For weeks now, I’ve been following the progress of two magpies towards summer. I started on the day I overheard a small conversation in a winter tree.

It must have been in early March when I heard it, those unmistakable voices from the empty branches of the tall beech across the road. When I stopped to watch, the birds seemed to be conducting themselves with the busy, examining air of two small, black and white site-surveyors.  For days, I saw them returning, discussing, assessing and realized that they were looking for a place to nest.

The site must have suited because construction began in mid-March. For weeks, energy and assiduity seemed to surround my house with a dazzle of speeding magpies. They were there in a flash of brightness or a trail of elongated shadow as they searched and picked and flew with twigs, wove and built. They developed the nest from a small dark knot in an angle of branches to the magnificent, deep, lined structure it is now. By the time I asked the owners of the tall office building across the road if I might look down on it from the attic windows, the roof was already on, a side entrance designed skilfully to lie along the natural structure of the tree. For a time, all was bustle and building until, as soon as the private, intimate matter of egg laying began, suddenly everything went still.


A new nest of magpies is a significant event. Their territorial behaviour is complex and here in the middle of the city, there isn’t a lot of territory free. This new wondrous, wild dwelling is equidistant from two others, both in monkey-puzzle trees, both established for twenty years or more. With this nest, I am witnessing the founding of a Pica pica dynasty.

As I followed the course of the work, I often looked across at the beautiful edifice growing in the tree and wondered what I could make from a pile of twigs. Really, I knew that I couldn’t make anything, certainly not anything that would hold in the ferocious wind of spring, that would protect young against the punishing rain of this slow, reluctant summer.

The leaves have only very recently begun to unfurl in new, glittering brilliance into the chilly air of May and even now, the nest is still visible. Behind the growing arras of green, there’ll be three weeks or so of incubation of anything up to eight eggs, and then a month of rearing before the hazardous time of fledging.  If the young survive, they’ll stay with their parents until autumn.

Now I watch as one or other of the master-builders emerges from the neat nest door into brief moments of sunshine to sit in the warmth of a nearby roof, resting before a frantic, demanding, noisy, dangerous season and it feels as if together, we’re waiting for whatever true summer brings.



Esther Woolfson is the author of Corvus — A Life With Birds. Her new book, Field Notes From a Hidden City — An Urban Nature Diary, has just been published by Granta, to rave reviews. Esther lives in Aberdeen with an elderly rook, a young crow and the 14 inhabitants of a dove-house in the garden. She will be taking part in the Bees and Nature sessions at the London Literature Festival 2013.

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