Western Magpie an oriental delight | Words about birds | Mail from Pikes Peak
Often when I meet people visiting Colorado or moving from the eastern United States, they ask, “What is that beautiful long-tailed black-and-white bird?” My typical shrug response is, “Oh, it’s just a magpie.”
Although common in the West, the Eurasian Magpie is practically absent from the East. Growing up in Denver, they had a bad reputation in our backyard. Like crows and ravens, magpies follow a pugnacious and predatory lifestyle, bullying small birds and even attacking nests to eat eggs and nestlings. However, they are indeed beautiful and unmistakable, with their striking black and white body pattern and flowing ornamental tail. Magpies are the only bird in our region with a tail longer than the body. In proper lighting, their wings and tail even display an iridescent quality.
Magpies are part of the corvid group. Most corvid bodies are not very colorful, with variations of white, black, and gray. They are social, aggressive, and truly omnivorous, eating a wide variety of plants and animals with their large, sturdy beaks. Corvids are also considered the most intelligent birds with good memories and even the ability to imitate sounds. Other corvids you are likely to see in Teller County include common raven, American crow, Canada jay, Steller’s jay, and Clark’s nutcracker.
Magpies are year-round residents and typically travel in pairs or small groups, sometimes congregating in large groups. On rare occasions I have observed herds of up to 40, and they often congregate around dead animals, cleaning up traffic accidents along streets and highways. Typical of corvids, the calls of the magpie are loud and harsh, with a nasal quality, but during the winter their chatter can brighten up the dead winter landscape. The sexes look similar and magpies are a bit smaller than a crow. Note that juveniles may have shorter tails.
The varied habitat of the magpie includes open fields, conifers, forest edges, farms and ranches, riparian and pinyon-juniper forests, shrublands, and urban areas. They are less common in dense forest and above 9,000 feet, but will extend above the tree line up to 13,000 feet. Magpies like to wander on the ground in search of a myriad of food items – mostly insects, but also other invertebrates, carrion, small vertebrates, eggs, fruits, nuts and seeds.
In winter, their round, bulky stick nests in trees and shrubs are more exposed, often the size of a basketball. Sometimes they reuse the nests in subsequent breeding seasons. Some research suggests that heat and humidity intolerance is the reason magpies did not spread to the eastern United States and spread throughout Colorado, even non-birders have tend to become familiar with the black-billed magpie.
Notable reports from the Woodland Park Yard area in January:
Hairy Woodpecker – Territorial Drums January 19
Northern Flicker – one on January 5
Magpie – a few most of the time, 8 Jan 21
White-breasted nuthatch – one or two most of the time
Dark-eyed Junco subspecies: all 5 subspecies (including resident grey-headed) on January 16; Pink-sided and white-winged – a few occasionally; Oregon and slate color – an occasional one.
Evening Grosbeak – some sightings
Roselin de Cassin – a few occasionally, 10 on January 25, 12 on January 30, singing on February 1
Pine Siskin – a few most of the time, 10 on Jan 30, 32 on Feb 1!
House Finch – singing on January 24
House sparrow – an occasional pair
Joe LaFleur studied wildlife biology and communications at Colorado State University and is the creator of “Better Birdwatching,” a DVD series on North American birds. Contact him with questions and comments at [email protected].