You can’t miss them. Black-billed Magpies are big, noisy, and distinctive in their black, navy, and white plumage. Their elegant long tails add to the tuxedo effect. They’re basically crows in formal attire.
In addition to the mixed scrub, woodlands, and fields of their native habitat, Magpies have adapted to life in urban areas. They’ve done well, and are common in most of the western U.S. Here in Colorado, they’re frequently considered “trash birds.”
Why do many people look at magpies with such disdain? Maybe it’s their tendency to dine on road kill and other carrion, or their occasional habit of killing and eating the eggs and nestlings of other birds, that draws so much criticism. But magpies have their endearing qualities as well. Maybe we don’t like them because we don’t know them well enough.
Personally, I think magpies are fascinating. For one thing, they’re incredibly smart. According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, “They flip items over to look for food, follow predators with hopes of scavenging scraps, … and steal food from other birds. … They can even use scent to find food—an unusual trait for birds, which generally have very little sense of smell.” While not particularly shy, they have good memories, recognizing and attacking humans who have previously molested them or their nests.* A recent study at Germany’s Goethe University demonstrated that European Magpies, a very close relative, are capable of recognizing themselves in a mirror. No other bird species studied has shown this level of intelligence.
Magpies are also very social. They are monogamous, and stick with the same mate until one of them dies. Both partners are involved in building the nest and raising the young. They invest a lot of energy into their progeny, building a huge domed nest to keep their offspring safe. Even after the fledglings leave home, joining with other young birds to form their own flock, their parents will continue to feed them for another three to four weeks (reminds me of having our kids in college). In the fall or winter, when they’re not nesting, magpies form large colonies with a pecking order similar to that in many other birds (such as chickens).
I love having magpies around our house. I initially put out peanuts to attract them, but I’ve found they seem to prefer dog kibble (and it costs less too). Their clear favorite, however, is suet. An unprotected block would be consumed in a matter of hours, so I’ve encased one feeder in a wire cage. The other has a shelf over the suet, supposedly enough to deter the top-feeding magpies. Hah!. The persistent birds become contortionists, hanging upside down with one leg while their beaks scoop up the high calorie treat. It does slow them down a bit, so I call it a truce. They more than repay me with their presence.
*Trost, C.H., 1999, Black-billed Magpie (Pica pica). In The Birds of North America, No. 389 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.