For the Birds Radio Program: Black-billed Magpie

Original Air Date: Dec. 7, 1989

Today Laura Erickson answers a listener’s questions about magpies.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Black-billed Magpie)

“Dear Laura,” writes an Effie, Minnesota, listener, “In mid to late October my wife and I made two sightings of Magpies. One was seen in our yard near Effie, the other just a few miles to the north and west of Effie. Is this unusual for northern Minnesota? What can you tell us about these birds?”

Magpies are close relatives of crows, ravens, and jays. There are only two species of them in the world. The one found throughout Europe and much of Asia is the same species as our Black-billed Magpie, though oddly enough in North America the species is pretty much restricted to the west. The other species, the Yellow-billed Magpie, is found only in the fertile valleys west of the Sierra Nevada in California. Magpies are considered regular but uncommon in Minnesota, especially in the northwestern part of the state. Birders from Duluth usually go to the Sax-Zim bog area just past Meadowlands to see Magpies. I’ve never seen one in either Wisconsin or Michigan, though they are on the official lists of both states, as rare vagrants and accidental winter visitors, and I know of at least a couple of sightings in Port Wing.

Magpies are impressive looking birds, bold black and iridescent green with large white markings and a long tail. They measure about 20 inches long, including a foot-long tail, which is thus more than half of their total length. Like just about all corvids, they are opportunistic omnivores, eating large quantities of grasshoppers and other insects, roadside carcasses, mice, snakes, and grains and fruits. They are known to pick ticks off the backs of large animals, and even occasionally to peck at sores on the backs of livestock.

Apparently the ‘mag’ of the name ‘magpie’ is a pet name for Margaret. But etymologists don’t agree about where the ‘pie’ comes from. Some people believe that it comes from the sound ‘pi’ or ‘pee,’ though apparently the bird doesn’t make any such sound. It is possible that our word for the baked variety of pie refers to the crow family’s habit of collecting assorted objects, a pie being a collection of edible odds and ends. The word ‘pied’ is derived from the black and white pattern of magpies, and often refers to other animals with bold patterns.

The magpie is known throughout much of the world for its continuous chattering. It gave rise to an ancient legend that it was the only bird that refused to enter the ark, preferring a perch on the ark’s roof from which it could jabber about the discomfiture of those caught in the rising flood. Aristotle and Pliny were both impressed by the magpie’s verbal repertoire.

Magpies are sociable birds, and like many of their family mate for life. They build bulky nests along streams or in woods or thickets. The male brings the materials to the female who does the actual building. Some pairs use the same nest year after year—old nests are also used by hawks, ducks, herons, and doves, and in bad weather occasionally robins and bluebirds take shelter in old magpie nests.

Magpies are rare enough throughout the Northland that any sighting of them is interesting and significant. If you have questions, comments, or observations you’d like to share with out listeners, write to “For the Birds” in care of this radio station.

(Recording of a Black-billed Magpie)

This is Laura Erickson and this program has been “For the Birds.”