Magpies by Kate Crowley

By Kate Crowley
I have often spoken of my fondness for all members of the Corvid family (jays, crows, ravens and nutcrackers). Their innate intelligence has been well studied and scientists have noted that in terms of the ratio between brain volume and overall size these birds compare relatively speaking with primates and whales. 
Living in northern Minnesota my favorite of the group are ravens, but if I were to move out west, it would definitely be the black billed magpies.  Like their relatives, they are a very social species, often to their detriment because of their habit of roosting in trees in large numbers and disturbing the peace of their human neighbors. 
I first saw these striking black and white birds, with bronzy green iridescent tail and rounded wings in the Badlands of South Dakota.  They had taken up residence around the cabins at Cedar Pass Lodge.   Their loud, scratchy sounding chuck-chuck-chuck calls were the soundtrack for our visit.  One of the most impressive parts of these birds is their tails, which are more than half as long as their bodies.  There is no way you can mistake them when you see them flying overhead.  I have wondered why they would have evolved such unusually long tails and though I have not found any answers, my own supposition is that since they are birds of the windy plains and mountains, their tails act like those on a kite, helping them to navigate.
Whenever we returned to the cabins at Cedar pass, I looked forward to seeing the magpies and then West Nile Virus hit.  The Corvids were especially vulnerable to this disease and it seemed to have a noticeable impact on the magpies in South Dakota.  When we returned a few years ago we found very few of the birds and they have not returned in the numbers we once saw.
I didn’t realize we had black billed magpies in our state, except accidentals that got blown off course, but this past May when we were canoeing on the Mississippi River by Itasca State Park, Mike and I were startled to see a pair of magpies fly across a road and into the woods.  We expressed our surprise to our friend who has a cabin not far from the park and he told us he regularly has a pair nest on his property.  In checking out their status I have learned that they do in fact live in the northwestern part of the state, most being seen around Crookston, Baudette, Roseau and Itasca. 
While it is true that they are primarily found in rangelands, sagebrush, streamside thickets or shrubby riparian areas, they will also inhabit open woodlands and pasture lands.  They generally avoid dense forests, which is one reason we were so surprised to see them near Itasca.  Proximity to water is important in their choice of territories and nesting sites.  It is likely that these birds have benefitted from increased harvesting of forests and the reduction of contiguous forest acreage.
They exhibit the same habits of foraging for food wherever humans live, as well as managing to survive in more remote, wilderness areas.  Like other corvids Magpies are scavengers and omnivores, which means they will eat just about anything they can find, but if they were not around humans their food supply would consist of larger insects, slugs, small mammals, young birds, eggs and carrion. 
Magpies are gregarious birds, traveling in flocks of 6-10 normally, but larger numbers in the winter.  A pair generally remains together for a year, but if one dies, it will be replaced rapidly.  I watched magpies again this month when I was in Bozeman, Montana.  Here the birds are as common throughout the town as the crows and ravens, but so much more beautiful to watch.  While on the ground looking for food they will hold their tail up and hop or strut in a jerky manner.  I have read accounts of people conditioning the birds to come in close with food, but like all corvids, they are wary around humans too and will quickly take flight if harassed.
The name Magpie supposedly comes from a Middle English name for the bird, which in turn was derived from the French name Margot.  Though not commonly heard anymore it also came to be a pejorative for a ‘noisy, talkative woman’.  Strange how you never hear of men referred to in that way, though we all know that this trait is shared by some members of both genders. 


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