For the Birds Radio Program: Magpies

Original Air Date: Aug. 9, 1995

Today Laura Erickson talks about one of the more common, and yet glamorous, birds of the American West, the magpie. 4:25

Audio missing


I am a shameless fan of corvids—the family made up of crows, jays, and ravens, that ornithologists consider to be the most intelligent of all bird families. My favorite of all is, of course, the Blue Jay, but an easy second is the magpie. This incredibly beautiful bird measures about 20 or 22 inches long, and a good 12 inches of that–more than half–is tail. If the long tail weren’t striking enough, the iridescent black and white plumage takes my breath away, especially when I spy a flock in flight, white wing patches flickering in the sunlight.

The magpie is found throughout the western states as far east as western Minnesota. The last one I saw before my family’s trip West was one walking along the shore of the Meadowlands sewage ponds this May. Magpies are occasionally found in Wisconsin, but never by me.

We call it the Black-billed Magpie, but the exact same species is called simply the Magpie in Europe, where it’s a common bird. Although European magpies apparently eat maggots, the name is apparently not derived from “maggot pie.” The “mag” half is a diminutive of Margaret. No one knows for sure where the “‘pie” comes from, but it’s most likely derived either from the birds’ proclivity for making miscellaneous collections, or from a poor imitation of the call.

Early colonists knew of magpies from Europe, but Lewis and Clark were the first white Americans to find magpies on this continent. Their early encounters were apparently more pleasant for the magpies than the humans as the birds brazenly invaded tents and snatched food from plates. John James Audubon didn’t spend enough time out West to paint magpies from nature–he based his painting on prepared specimens from England. But white people who lived in the West found magpies way too common, and didn’t like how they picked at wounds on cattle and ate carrion and fruit crops. Until revisions to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1972 prohibited it, many western states had bounties on them.

Nowadays, they’re still supposedly abundant, but my family had to work to see them on our vacation West. We didn’t find a single one while driving west on the interstate through North Dakota, and had only two in Montana. The only ones we found in Wyoming were in Jackson, one on a Dairy Queen picnic table and one on a K­ Mart sign. Coming home we hit the jackpot, with a flock of at least nine near Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Summer flocks are apparently comprised of family members, and this was one attractive and jolly family. I got to watch them sitting on branches, their thick, beautiful tails fluttering in the breeze, walking on the ground with their comical strut, and flying about displaying their beautiful wing patches, plus I heard a wide assortment of their vocalizations–a feast for eyes and ears that won’t soon be repeated.

If this excellent bird were rare, people would travel very long distances to add it to their life lists. America has a second species of magpie–the Yellow-billed Magpie, found only in a small area of California, which is every bit as interesting. Virtually all serious birders eventually make a pilgrimage to the narrow range in California to add the yellow-bill to their life lists. But the black-bill, every bit as interesting and larger and a bit more attractive to my eyes, would lure just as many birders if only it were harder to find. People simply don’t know how to reckon the intrinsic value of birds, and we use relative rarity as our yardstick for measuring desirability. But to my way of thinking, the world could definitely never have too many chickadees, and could probably never have too many magpies, either.