All About Black-Billed Magpies

Magpies are all around the town and country of our Central Washington Paradise this summer. Few creatures are as striking as these black and white, long-tailed, black-billed birds. Flashy, big, boisterous and loud, their black plumage shimmers with bronze and blue or green and purple in the sun. So formal and straight-laced looking, it couldn’t possibly be guilty of all those bad things people say.

Its habits of attacking the eyes of injured or sick animals, raiding other birds’ nests, and picking at sores of cattle and horses have not endeared it to us. The first written report of a sighting was by Zebulon Pike in 1806. On November first, according to Pike’s journal, magpies “alighted on [our horses], and in defiance of their wincing and kicking, picked many places quite raw.” Magpie’s name is said to be short for “maggot pie,” for its eating of maggots off decaying meat, although some insist it is short for Margaret, or is an old term for “chattering female.”

Into the 1930s, periodic contests were held around the West to exterminate magpies. Thousands more died from poisoned baits placed for predators. Very few birds have been so reviled.

Yet, this is a very intelligent bird. The Earthfire Institute ( reports research showing that the brain size and cognitive abilities of corvids (crows and magpies) are relatively similar to those of the great apes. The birds may be among the most intelligent of all animals. Corvids’ brains are built very dif­fer­ently from ours, and they use portions of their brains with no counterpart to human brains. Their intelligence evolved quite differently than hours, yet they plan, they remember, they learn.

Magpies can, and do, learn to talk; google “black-billed magpie talking” and dazzle your kids and family with the videos you find. (No, it does not have a split tongue, and splitting its tongue does not help it talk.) My up-the-Little-Chumstick-Creek-out-of Leavenworth, Washington, Uncle Ed Palmquist, often told of rearing a magpie in Wenatchee in the 1920s and teaching it to talk. At the age of two, it was trapped and killed outside its entry and exit window which had been absentmindedly closed by his mother. The culprit, he said, was a “f#$%!* cat.” His mother reported hearing what sounded like the bird’s voice calling “Help! Cat! Help! Help!” but did not respond quickly enough.

While magpie makes a variety of whistling, cackling, and trilling sounds, its primary call has been described as a series of “jack jack jack!” notes with a rising “Maayg?” It is highly adaptable, with a perfect bill for its varied diet. It caches food when it has an excess, and eats more insects (including grasshoppers and ticks) than any of the other jays, ravens and crows in its family.

Were it not a bird, the magpie would probably be an architect. Nests, often easily seen perched in brush and trees, are constructed of sticks, with a mud cup, and sometimes look like small adobe houses lined with horse hair, fur or fine grasses. The nest will generally be used year after year, and may be two feet or more in diameter and several feet from top to bottom. It is not unusual for this mud and stick home to have a domed roof and two side doors (one likely for the long tail).

Black-billed magpies form long-term pair bonds, often staying together throughout the year. The pair will rear one brood from seven to ten greenish gray eggs, heavily spotted with brown. The female incubates for 16-21 days, and the male feeds her during that time. Both parents bring food (nearly always animal flesh) to nestlings, who leave the nest within 30 days.

Other birds quickly take over abandoned magpie “homes.” Some cavity nesters, such as the American kestrel, will move right in. Great horned and long-eared owls have been observed building their own nests atop the sturdy foundation provided by the magpies.

In keeping with the wishes of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association’s Science Education Committee, I include the following. Magpie is in the crow and jay family and its scientific name is Pica pica. It is a broad-winged bird to 22 inches long (with tail). It is highly adaptable, with a perfect bill for its varied diet of insects, carrion, baby birds and small vertebrates, with some fruit and seeds. Communal and protective birds, groups of magpies will often mob hawks and other predators. Find more in “The Birder’s Handbook” by Paul R. Ehrlich, David S. Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye, any good field guide, at  or google them.

Magpie is a favorite among birdwatchers in the state, and can be easily found in our east-of-the-Cascades countryside and towns. Forget its reputation; where would we be without scavengers such as the magpie, to clean up dead critters?

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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