MTPR

Black-Billed Magpies: Common But Uncommonly Smart

Oct 6, 2019

When I first moved out West, I was impressed by the large black-and-white bird I noticed strutting around my yard and campsites, its long black tail dragging on the ground behind it. The bird’s loud “mag-mag-mag” calls slowly became a familiar sound. Now the black-billed magpie has become an important symbol of the West to me, and whenever I see or hear it, I’m reminded how lucky I am to call the Rocky Mountains home.

I’m not alone. Magpies have been invoking strong feelings in people for centuries. In Europe, coming upon a magpie was thought to bring good luck – or bad – depending on how many you saw at one time. Ranchers used to trap and shoot magpies, believing they were harmful to livestock. Said to be the only animal that refused to get on the Ark, the magpie preferred instead to perform its favorite activity: chattering loudly while the world around filled with water.

Legends and fables aside, the more you learn about magpies, the more you realize what amazing animals they are, and all the wonderful talents they actually possess. Take nest-building, for example. Great architects of the bird world, magpie nests are masterpieces. Taking up to forty days to complete, the finished product can be more than three feet wide, with a side opening up to four feet high. The nests are dome-shaped to protect residents from predators, and are made by both the males and females with a wide variety of material, from mud to horsehair to sticks. Once complete, the nest will last for years. Other birds appreciate the magpie’s artistry: an abandoned nest is often used by raptors and songbirds. Without realizing it, you’ve probably seen many of these large nests in deciduous trees along riverbanks and on top of utility poles throughout Western Montana.

Not only should you envy the magpie’s house-building ability, but also its relationship skills. Once a partner is found, a male and female magpie will mate for life. Highly social birds, they live in large groups that can contain over fifty individuals. Since magpies don’t migrate, that’s a great deal of time to spend together.

Black-billed magpies are a member of the Corvidae family, which includes ravens, crows and jays, a very smart bunch to belong to. Magpies are said to be able to mimic human and other animal sounds. Never at a lack for food, magpies will eat almost anything: carrion, nestlings, small mammals, insects -- and whatever is left unattended on the picnic table. They can locate a food source using their sense of smell, a trait very rare in birds. Magpies avoid becoming a food source themselves by flitting in and out of dense branches, since they’re not fast fliers.

If you live in Western Montana, seeing a black-billed magpie may seem like nothing new. But the next time you get a chance, take some time to watch it. Admire its cocky strut. Wait for the beautiful flash of iridescent green and blue to shine as the sun hits the wings just right. Follow the weaving, seemingly careless flight. But beware how many you see at once. As the old folk rhyme goes:

“One for sorrow, two for mirth,
Three for a wedding, four for a birth,
Five for silver, six for gold,
Seven for a secret not to be told,
Eight for heaven, nine for hell, and ten for the devil’s own self.”

"Field Notes" is produced by the Montana Natural History Center.

(Broadcast: "Field Notes,"  10/8/19 and 10/11/19. Listen weekly on the radio Tuesdays and Fridays at 4:54 p.m., or via podcast.)