The Tail of a Bird Some People
Love to Hate The Black-billed Magpie
Article By Denise Hester
Photo of Monte Dolack painting used with the
permission of Mr. Dolack
“WOW! What is that bird?”
These are often the words of amazement uttered by a
first-time-from-back-east visitor to the Flathead Valley
when they first see a Black-billed Magpie. While it is a
large eye-catching black and white bird ( 17 1/2
-22"/44-56 cm) with a dark bill, head, breast, and under
parts, with green iridescence on wings, white belly and
shoulders, white primaries conspicuous as white wing
patches in flight, it is the long black tail that first
attracts the eye. When I first saw a magpie, my eyes
were immediately and involuntarily focused on its tail.
Until that first sighting I had seen nothing with a tail
like it except for the scissor-tailed flycatcher.
Indeed, it is the long black tail that makes the magpie
so distinctive among our local feathered friends.
Lewis and Clark probably had the same reaction when they
first identified the Black-billed Magpie in North
America. It was in September 1804, in the Mandan Nation
on the upper Missouri in what is now North Dakota that
Meriwether Lewis recorded: “One of the hunters killed a
bird of the Corvus genus and order of the pica . . . the
beak is black, and of a convex and cultrated figure . .
. . it(s) note is not disagreeable though loud – it is
twait twait, twait.”
Lewis lavished a page of description including
measurements on this magpie. The bird, an integral part
of the Mandan creation story, had never before been
identified by Europeans in North America. Over the
winter the expedition kept four captured magpies in a
cage, and in the spring sent them and a live prairie dog
back to President Jefferson. The birds successfully
completed the trip back east and one of the specimens
was sketched by Alexander Wilson and later engraved and
reproduced in Wilson’s pioneering work American
Ornithology published between 1804 and 1814.
But the tale of the magpie is a tale of a bird that some
people love to hate. Through at least the 1930s,
organized contests were held to “exterminate” the
magpie; in more recent times many thousands died from
poisoned baits intended for other predators.
Perhaps people dislike magpies because they are loud
aggressive birds that often travel in groups and can be
seen mobbing other birds, usually predators. However,
this is nothing more than a group effort at piracy with
the purpose to cause the raptor or occasional gull to
drop its food or to chase it away from the group.
Magpies also do not help their public relations campaign
by occasionally preying on eggs and nestlings of other
more cuddly species. And as anyone knows who has had the
privilege of residing in close proximity to recently
fledged magpie young, the constant rapid nasal “mag, mag,
mag” or “yak, yak, yak” can be, to put it mildly,
Missoula artist Monte Dolack captured this contradiction
in his painting entitled “Magpie,” which depicts this
elegant bird perching almost defiantly and with perfect
posture on top of a highway sign pock-marked with bullet
holes. Behind the magpie, the Big Sky landscape spreads
out far into the distance.
But not everyone rejects the magpie. Montana Audubon has
adopted this truly western bird as the namesake for its
newsletter The Magpie Muse. Besides its inherent
physical beauty, the Magpie has much to recommend it.
First, it has a lot of great relatives. It belongs to
the Family corvidae, which includes in Western Montana
the Steller’s, Grey and Blue Jay, the Clark’s
Nutcracker, the American Crow, and the Common Raven.
These are some of the most intelligent and resourceful
birds on the continent. In early August, I experienced
these two attributes first hand. We have a pie cherry
tree in our orchard which robins, starlings and, yes,
magpies love to feast on. So using our advanced human
intelligence, we wrap the tree in netting just before
the fruit matures. Once our tree was wrapped securely
over the top and around the sides the robins and
starlings were held at bay. But a day or two later, I
heard a magpie ruckus in the orchard and found four
magpies inside the netting having a great time. They had
apparently found an opening no more than 2 feet in
diameter just off the ground around the trunk and came
up through it. You can imagine the fun I had extricating
the four thieves from inside the netting and closing the
hole. Over the next ten days until the cherries were
harvested, the magpies returned every day and tried to
figure out a way to get inside the netting.
The magpie’s intelligence has been demonstrated in
several human induced experiments. It has been reported
that magpies can be taught to mimic human voices as
parrots do. Interestingly, they have recently been shown
to recognize themselves in a mirror. The author of the
experiment (cited below) stated: “A crucial step in the
emergence of self-recognition is the understanding that
one's own mirror reflection does not represent another
individual but oneself. . . . Mirror self-recognition
has been shown in apes and, recently, in dolphins and
elephants. Although experimental evidence in
non-mammalian species has been lacking, some birds from
the corvid family show skill in tasks that require
perspective taking, a likely prerequisite for the
occurrence of mirror self-recognition.”
The attribute of intelligence complemented by
perseverance gives the magpie essential tools for
survival. We experienced this tenacity over a three year
period during which a one-legged magpie returned to our
winter bird feeders and held its own against its
two-legged relatives in the contest to gather seeds that
had fallen to the ground. Last winter it didn’t return
and sadly we miss its presence and can’t help but wonder
about its fate.
Like most of its cousins, the Black-billed Magpie is an
omnivore. You name it and the magpie will probably try
to eat it. 85% of its diet consists of insects, carrion,
invertebrates and small vertebrates, and 15% consists of
nuts and berries. Because it is the most insectivorous
of the North American corvidae, magpies are more
beneficial than destructive to agriculture. These birds
frequently associate with cattle and sheep, perching on
their backs and picking off ticks and maggots. Those
living in western rangeland appear shyer of humans than
those living in more suburban settings.
Magpies are very gregarious and maintain loose communal
roosts throughout the year. They construct large and
conspicuous nests, often of sticks which enclose a bowl
made of mud or dung lined with softer materials such as
plant stems and hair. The entire structure is covered
with a bulky dome. This spring we had the opportunity to
see several nests close up during the Cohen Stroll along
the Whitefish River led by Linda deKort. Come next year
and Linda will show them to you. Inside the typical
nest, 6-7 brown-spotted greenish blue eggs are incubated
for 16-21 days. The male provides the female with food
throughout the incubation period and after hatching,
both parents share the feeding duties of the nestlings
for the next 4 weeks. Thereafter, the young birds stay
with their parents for a long time, loudly demanding
food and learning the lessons of successful living from
their parents and relatives.
The magpie ranges from Alaska and western Canada south
to east-central California and east onto the Great
Plains. It is also found in Eurasia. Its primary habitat
is grassland with scattered trees and riparian thickets.
Magpies live successfully in agricultural areas and
towns. Almost anywhere in our valley you will find these
intelligent and adaptable birds. They will constantly
entertain you with their raucous behavior and in so
doing, you may come to appreciate and enjoy this
ubiquitous year-round resident of the Big Sky landscape.
And finally, special thanks to Monte Dolack for
generously allowing FAS to use his work “Magpie” in this
article. More of his wildlife works can be seen at
*Ehrlich,P.,Dobkin,D., Wheye,D. 1988. The Birder’s Handbook. 159, 414, 345,
615. Simon & Schuster, Inc.
*Gilman,C. 2003. Lewis and Clark, Across the Divide. 89-90, 363. Smithsonian
*Icenoggle, R. 2003. Bird in Place. 181. Farcountry Press.
*Prior, H., Schwarz, A., 2008. Mirror-Induced Behavior in the Magpie (Pica
pica): Evidence of Self-Recognition. PLoS Biology, 6(8),
e202. DOI: Reported online in Greg Laden’s Blog. August
*Sibley, D. A. 2009. Field Guide to Birds of Western North America. 302-309.
Alfred A. Knopf.