By Denise Hester
“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, irritating.
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 www.dolack.com.
*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 Books.
*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 20, 2008.
*Sibley, D. A. 2009. Field Guide to Birds of Western North America. 302-309. Alfred A. Knopf.