Maggie the magpie finds home with Minturn man
John Wayne Smith talks rapidly to a magpie standing on his leg. He twitters to her, trying to get her to do tricks and show off what a smart bird she is. Maggie – that’s what he named her – nibbles on a twig he gives her. She sits on his shoulder as they walk over to Smith’s converted bus. She sits on the steering wheel while Smith wipes up her accidents on the dashboard.
“That’s where she rides,” he said. “She rides on the steering wheel.”
Smith found fledgling Maggie under a pine tree in Minturn, where he’s lived for 15 years. He took her in and said, “if you can make it through the night, then I’ll take you in.” She made it, and he’s been taking care of her since. He actually turned her loose twice and her parents found him and showed him where she was. They literally squawked above his head right until they found Maggie.
“They figured I was doin’ her good, I guess,” he said.
Now, she’s 6 weeks old and in her adolescence. He feeds her about 15-20 times a day, and she’s learned to listen to his commands. When he takes her out on camping trips at Camp Hale, she knows not to go too far from the bus when she’s out and about. Smith said it’s like having a 16-year-old around.
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“Very demanding, self-absorbed, a little narcissistic, and very loud and squawky,” he said. “They don’t know their limits yet, and with her it’s the same way. You’re teaching her where she can be, what she can do.”
According to his research, magpies are the smartest in the animal kingdom. They can use tools, they can work out a problem over time, they’re fast learners, they like music and repetition and can even respond to conversation. A published research paper from New York University indicates that animal intelligence is subjective, and in its own way, each species is the smartest.
“You can tell, just watching them, that they’re paying attention in a very focused way and they’re always trying to solve problems with the motivation to find food,” he said.
For example, each time Smith feeds her, she saves the last bite and hides it somewhere. Smith finds it and reprimands her, and she knows right away what she did wrong. Smith has trained dogs his whole life – to train dogs in certain behaviors, it usually takes three tries. Maggie understands the first time, with demonstration through action. That doesn’t stop her from being sassy – she likes to take Smith’s lighters and hide those too. Smith hopes to teach her how to play guitar.
Smith has always been good at understanding animals. Growing up, he had two retired German shepherd police dogs, Babe and Ebony.
“I learned dog before I learned human,” he said.
He also has a dog, Kaya. Maggie likes to try and ride Kaya, but Kaya doesn’t take too kindly to a bird standing on her.
Now that Smith is an adult, he’s embraced his love for animals. He worked in commercial construction for a while and then was a caretaker on a ranch. When he left, he took the family dog, Bodie Miller, with him, and then he knew he needed to do what he was good at.
Today, he’s a dog trainer who helps friends and friends-of-friends. He says he looked after a friend’s dog who was extremely shy around people other than its owner for three days, and by the time he was finished, the dog was gregarious and outgoing.
While having a magpie as a pet might seem like fun for some, Smith warns against keeping wild animals as pets.
“I encourage anyone to not engage with animals unless you have to because you’ll mess them up,” he said.