Magpie whisperer remembers childhood raising 'Canadian parrots'

For many Albertans, magpies are noisy pests known for their unwanted early morning wake-up call and tendency to stalk and bully pets - but Lawrence Jansen doesn’t see them that way.

'It's just a parrot in disguise,' says magpie whisperer of childhood pet

Lawrence Jansen sent in this photo of one of his magpies, taken right after bathtime. (Lawrence Jansen)

For many Albertans, magpies are noisy pests known for their unwanted early morning wake-up call and tendency to stalk and bully pets.

But Lawrence Jansen doesn't see them that way.

"I consider a magpie a Canadian parrot," he says. "It's just a parrot in disguise."

Jansen a third-generation birder, grew up on a farm near Kelowna, B.C. where winged pets were a permanent feature, both indoors and out.

"Inside, we might have a cockatiel or a budgie like many families, and outside we had the family pet of a pigeon or a magpie."

Each spring, Jansen's father would climb up a tree to a magpie nest and carefully extricate a baby bird.

"Then he'd hand it to the kids and say 'Here, take care of this,'" Jansen says with a laugh. "So you'd learn to feed it, train it, teach it to fly and it would become part of the family."

In his day-to-day life, Lawrence Jansen works in crime prevention for the Edmonton Police Service. His home life growing up, though, was for the birds. (CBC)
"For me, it was a great experience growing up."

A beak made for boring

Like parrots, Jansen says magpies made for highly intelligent, inquisitive and loyal pets. With training, the family's birds learned to mimic cats and dogs and "pretty well whatever you wanted them to repeat" over time.

They also did tricks, and were adept at tracking a bit of food when it was put through a shell game.

One particular pet magpie, raised once Jansen's family had moved to the city, made it a habit to visit neighbouring homes to collect extra food.

"It would sit on people's veranda and say hello and people would feed it."

The key, Jansen says, is patience.

"They take a lot of care, obviously … but I don't think people see behind the feathers to the inquisitive mind that's there," he said.

But even as an obvious fan, Jansen has warnings for anyone thinking of doing the same.

"Don't keep them in your house. They like silverware and jewelry and they will pick up those things and hide them."

One particular bird managed to peck all the keys from a laptop computer and hide them around the house in just 20 minutes, he says.

One of Jansen's former pets perches on a laptop - still notably missing a few of the keys taken and hidden by the bird on an earlier occasion. (Lawrence Jansen)
And then there's the matter of safety.

"They are a little bit challenging -- they have a very pointy beak, unlike a parrot, so you have to wear safety glasses if you are going to get close to them because that beak is designed for boring into holes like a woodpecker."

A purr like a kitten

As an adult, Jansen later followed in his father's footsteps and collected his own baby magpie for his children to raise, but says those days are now behind him. 

However, he would like to see people change their minds about the birds, and give magpies credit for the ways they contribute to the community.

"He's there, he picks up the garbage. I think we leave a lot of garbage out which is why we probably have a huge population of them."

Anyone who takes the time to build a positive relationship with the birds, even as just a bird watcher, will be glad they did.

"Watch them in your backyard -- start feeding them peanuts and watch them lay them around the yard and weeks later come back and hide them."

And then there's this:

"If you've never heard a magpie coo …" he says wistfully. "They have a trill and coo when they're just perfectly settled -- and that's a sound that you don't hear that will change your whole mind.

"It's like a purr of a kitten."


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