The first time I encountered the mischievous antics of a black-billed magpie was during my first cross-country drive. I was setting up camp in Arches National Park and noticed large, crow-like birds strutting with their striking contrasts of black and white feathers. I had placed my lunch on the picnic table while I set up my tent and turned my back for a minute, when I heard the rustling of my bag of Fritos. I turned to see blue-green iridescent wings with white tips trying to make off with a full bag of chips.
Black-billed magpies (Pica hudsonia) are ubiquitous birds of open range, farms, and riparian area of the Intermountain West. These large gregarious birds are members of the Corvidae family, which are relatives of crows, ravens, and jays. Like most birds in this family, they are opportunistic feeders, eating anything from seeds and fruit to small rodents and squirrels to carrion. Sometimes they steal kills from coyotes.
Counter to the term “bird brained,” more and more studies are showing that corvids, including magpies, are highly intelligent birds. Their brain-to-body mass ratio is equal to dolphins and great apes and only slightly less than humans. Corvids can recall where they have stored food up to nine months later. Crows in urban areas of Japan have learned to use traffic lights to crack nuts. They wait with humans for the cross walk light and place walnuts where cars will roll over and crack the nuts. They again wait for lights to change and so they can cross safely to retrieve their open snack (check it out on YouTube).
Magpies are known to make and use tools to cut food for chicks and to mimic human voices. A recent study even shows that magpies can identify their own reflection in the mirror (again, YouTube it!), which in the past was only thought to be a trait of humans and a few other primates.
Echoing another human trait, magpies mate for life. Males will use their long tails as a courtship display. A pair bonds when they choose their first nest site, although sometimes females and males disagree and start to build separated nests. Once they have settled on a nest site, male and female both take part in nest building, sometimes taking 40 days to complete their large nests. The male gathers sticks for the outside of the nest while the female lines the inside with a layer of mud and grass, where she will lay 1-9 eggs.
During certain times of the year, these social birds will live in large clans called “parliaments” that can include several generations of family members. Magpies will even gather for a “funeral” for fellow magpies. When a dead magpie is discovered, a magpie will call loudly to attract others. It has been proposed that these birds are trying to determine the cause of death. If the culprit is a hawk, they use their gathered number to harass and chase off the predator.
The trait of thievery has also linked magpies closely to humans, and they use us as an easy food source. There is documentation of these birds following hunting parties of Plains Indians and feeding on discarded buffalo carcasses. Lewis and Clark even noted that magpies would boldly enter their tents to steal food. This association has led this bird to be featured repeatedly in Native American lore as messengers or guides. They will also watch where other birds and mammals store food and then pilfer their stash. Magpies will even create several false caches of their own food in order to throw off other thieving animals.
In more recent times, magpies have been persecuted and killed to aid other game bird species. Although magpies like other Corvidaes are nest predators, studies have shown that eggs make up a very small percentage of their diet, and they have little impact on game bird populations. In fact, contrary to being a pest, these birds serve several ecological benefits. The bulk of their diet consists of carrion, thus helping to reduce the number of dead animals lying around our forests and roadsides. They also pick and eat ticks off the backs of animals such as deer, moose, and elk.
We often overlook these common birds. But if we take time to look closely, magpies live highly social, complex lives that frequently intersect with our own. If you are interested in watching these charismatic birds, look for trails that head through open areas, fields, and riparian areas. Slavin Conservation Area just south of Spokane along Highway 195 and the BLM trailhead at Crab Creek-Rock Ford (also called Goose Butte) west of Sprague are great places to catch glimpses of magpies.