14 April 2023
When Frieda Hughes moved to the depths of the Welsh countryside, she was expecting to take on a few projects: planting a garden, painting and writing her poetry column for the Times. But instead, she found herself rescuing a baby magpie, the sole survivor of a nest destroyed in a storm – and embarking on an obsession that would change the course of her life.
As the magpie, George, grows from a shrieking scrap of feathers and bones into an intelligent, unruly companion, Frieda finds herself captivated – and apprehensive of what will happen when the time comes to finally set him free.
George: A Magpie Diary publishes 27th April.
Follow Frieda Hughes on Instagram @friedahughes.
Keep reading for an extract from Frieda’s new book, where she meets George for the first time…
In the raised rockery beds that I’d built adjacent to the tree, a small feathered scrap caught my eye. I parted the foliage around it and found an injured baby magpie; it was almost the size of my palm – too young to walk or fly, and with only the most rudimentary feathers. Its stumpy wings were like a bundle of fan-sticks still awaiting fluff. So, the magpie eggs had already hatched. Immediately, I wanted to save it.
Although I’ve picked up various injured birds over the years, I’ve only ever seen baby birds when they’ve fallen out of the nest, already dead. This little thing was just about alive and in desperate need of care.
The baby magpie’s open beak was full of fly eggs, which didn’t bode well for the bird. I gently flushed the eggs out under a dribble from the outdoor tap; the bird was bleeding in patches all over its body, and I guessed the neighbour’s cat must have had a go at it – it looked torn in places, like a bloodied rag. I took it indoors and gave it a lukewarm bath to flush out the fly eggs from the wounds on the rest of its body; I had to use a tiny watercolour paintbrush to get the fly eggs out of its nostrils. I didn’t know what else to do, but I remembered clearly how quickly fly eggs can turn into maggots, and the idea of any egg hatching, eating flesh as a maggot before becoming a chrysalis from which would emerge a fly, made gigantic by the minuteness of its tiny, flesh surroundings, revolted me. I made sure I fished out every single one.
When I was a small child my father, who was a fanatical fisherman, forgot that he’d left a tin of maggots on the dashboard of his old black Morris Traveller. In the summer heat they turned into flies in record time, exploding the top of the old tobacco tin he’d put them in as the bulk of their bodies swelled up like miniature Hulks, clouding the interior of the car with tiny black shiny pissed-off engine-driven lunatics. When he opened the car door my father was engulfed in a cloud of quickly dispersing fizzing black dots, and I was engulfed in peals of laughter, tempered only by a sense of revulsion at the seething mass.
The magpie chick didn’t fight or struggle; on the contrary, it put up with my ministrations with the air of a creature that no longer cares. I dried it off, and got it to eat a small worm, which I dangled into its open upturned beak and dropped to the back of its throat, so it swallowed. Then I wrapped it up warmly in a T-shirt and put it in a small cardboard box. I left it to recover and hoped it might, although given its condition I had my doubts. If it lived, I’d call it George.