I Love Magpies

black-billed-magpie-blackforestco-2008oct08-lah-005r-1You 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.

magpie_home_20100112_lah_6351Personally, 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).

black-billed-magpie-blackforestco2008oct08-lah-152rI 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.

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8 Responses to I Love Magpies

  1. Dawn says:

    I love magpies and wish we had them here.
    I have to ask did you take any rides with strangers? LOL!

  2. Karin says:

    We have lots and lots of magpies in Idaho!!

  3. Antonio says:

    G’day Leslie, I’m writing you from Australia

    I do love magpies too, however I’ve tried both peanuts and dog/cat food and even if they work, the results are quite random.

    Someone has suggested me that it may be possible to use hormones, but…where do I get these?

    Or…is there any particular scent that attracts them?

    Thank you

  4. LAH says:

    Antonio, the birds you call magpies in Australia are a different species from the Black-billed Magpie we have in the US. They’re not even closely related. The Australian Magpie is omnivorous, but greatly prefers insects and other small invertebrates. However, peanuts and pet food should still work. As they are ground feeders, make sure it is spread at their level.

    When you mention hormones, did you mean pheromones? Hormones are chemicals that circulate inside the body. Pheromones are chemicals released outside the body, usually as a sexual attractant.

    I doubt pheromones would work, as most bird species lack a developed sense of smell (or taste). Maybe that’s how they endure eating decaying roadkill?

  5. Julie Aston says:

    Sadly the UK isn’t as keen on them, I rescue them and think they are very misunderstood

    • LAH says:

      Actually, a lot of people here don’t like them either. They are a bit brash, have been known to spoil other birds’ nests, and can get pretty noisy.

      However, I prefer to think of magpies as pretty classy birds… smart, adaptable, very distinguished crows in formal attire.

  6. Rene Gade says:

    i have rescued a magpie that blew out of her nest. she was barely feathered yet i managed to keep her alive. 3 months on and she is still with me now. i have to say that now that ive reared her i have realised that no other pet could come close to having the personality a magpie has. Milly (her name) is so human in nature, she is like a human baby. i cant believe how smart she is and she has such a quirky personality. she is beautiful. im gonna miss her when i release her back to the wild… If she copes well to the transition. otherwise ill be stuck with her

  7. LAH says:

    Rene, that is so special! I’m really impressed that you kept her alive. Technically, I think it isn’t legal to keep a wild bird. Rehabbers have special licenses. But it sounds like you’re taking such good care of her. (Are you sure she’s a “she”?) I’m glad there’s another magpie lover out there!

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