By Dr. Jim Ferguson

I’m not a birdwatcher, but a writer finds it hard not to write about things under his nose or on his mind. And on returning from Colorado, I still have magpies on my mind.

We don’t have these handsome birds in Tennessee, but they are common on “Brother Bill’s” Colorado ranch, and throughout the western United States. These birds are considered very intelligent, and can even recognize themselves in a mirror. I haven’t tested this assertion; I just know they are hard to photograph without a telephoto lens. Google “magpie” for professional pictures, and you’ll be surprised by the worldwide varieties of this member of the crow family.

Hunters tell me they look for magpies when searching for wounded game because the birds scavenge the “sensitive” parts of dead animals. The experts say, that at one time magpies would often alight on the backs of buffalo and eat ticks. To me this sounds a lot like the commensal arrangement between remoras and sharks or whales.

I became interested in magpies early in my medical career when I learned that magpies of the genus Pica will eat almost anything. In fact, the name magpie derives from Latin and describes a person, or the black and white bird, that chatters noisily or collects things.

In medical lore pica is a term for the craving to consume unusual substances like dirt or cracked ice. The latter is called pagophagia. Many years ago I published a medical paper on pica after I encountered three patients who confided in me their cravings which we now know is a reliable sign of iron deficiency. One lady worked in a school cafeteria and would sneak around and eat the dirt which collected in the bottom of fifty pound bags of pinto beans. Another lady was constantly seen with a glass of ice to crunch upon. The last lady was referred to me for jaundice. Her craving was munching raw carrots to the point her skin was tinted by excessive carotene. She was not jaundiced. The pica resolved in each instance when the iron deficiency was discovered and corrected.

Women are more likely to become iron deficient because of monthly losses and having to donate considerable iron to their developing baby’s blood production. Do you remember the Vlasic pickle commercials that depicted a stork munching on a crunchy pickle? Pregnant women often develop cravings for foods like pickles. I wonder how many ladies are manifesting pica from iron deficiency.

The cause of iron deficiency should always be sought. The cause may be multiple pregnancies or heavy menstrual flow. Iron deficiency can occur in serious skin conditions like psoriasis where there is excessive sloughing of skin cells with consequent iron loss. Rarely, chronic bleeding through the urinary tract can produce iron deficiency. However, occult bleeding through the gastrointestinal tract must be always considered as it may indicate an ulcer, cancer or inflammatory bowel disease such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s Disease.

Strangely, the human body is not designed to absorb iron very well. And yet, iron is an essential component of red blood cells which carry oxygen to the tissues of the body. Equally fascinating is the fact that iron is the end result of nuclear fusion in stars. You could imagine iron as the ashes of a star where no further energy can be extracted. The iron is ultimately released after the star is “recycled,” and the iron is finally incorporated into our red blood cells. Carl Sagan once said, “We are star stuff,” and he was right.

We live in a wondrous world and its diversity of life fascinates me. Why are there 5,000 species of lady bugs and more than 350,000 types of beetles? And have you ever noticed the thousands of spider webs highlighted by early morning dew, especially in the fall? Without spiders we would soon be overrun by insects. And ladybugs eat aphids and, thereby, protect our gardens.

I don’t have a fear of insects or spiders. However, I prefer to observe nature outside my home. This time of year we hear commercials about home perimeter spraying to prevent or limit lady bugs, etc. from hibernating in our home over the winter. I’ll admit I’ve sprayed chemicals around the outside of my home to prevent an infestation, but I believe you need to strike a balance between chemical exposure and the occasional bug in the rug.

Recently, our Colorado group was gobsmacked when we came upon “Oreo cows.” We learned that man’s manipulation of nature produced these cows which are black on either end with a white band around the middle, just like the cookie. One even had a black polka dot in the midst of the white band. It caused me to think of a hunter coming upon this “creature” and mistaking its marking for a bull’s eye!

In traveling, I’ve encountered another creature which produces a strange almost indecipherable call. No, I’m not speaking of coyotes who call to each other at night in ranch country and even in Knoxville these days. Nor am I describing forest bird calls which are often beyond the range of my age related hearing losses. I’m actually referring to a species of human who work as airport gate agents. These “birds” lack elocution and their vocal timber produce the most shrill and unrecognizable announcements in all of nature.

Fall seems to be occurring later this year. I might blame this on anthropogenic (man-made) global warming, though there hasn’t been any warming of the climate in over fifteen years despite what Al-Gore preaches. They call it climate change now for a reason, and our President seems to think this issue is more important than terrorism. I thought I would return to Knoxville from Colorado in time to see our trees change and write a story about experiencing two falls in one year. But since fall hasn’t come yet to Knoxville, you get magpies and my musings instead!

If this essay entertained you, check out my book of stories called “Well…What Did the Doctor Say?” It’s available on line at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. A great Christmas gift, if I do say so (crow about it) myself!