For the Birds Radio Program: Magpies

Original Air Date: Aug. 13, 1999

In honor of Lisa Johnson’s birthday, Laura talks about one of her favorite birds that she misses from western Minnesota.

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Today is my friend Lisa’s birthday. She lives in Duluth, but lived a long time in western Minnesota, and really misses magpies. Some people from the west might consider this relative of crows and jays a strange bird to miss, because so many people consider them a nuisance out there—before Congress passed the most recent amendments to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, some states even had a bounty on magpies. And magpies do cause problems here and there, picking at the wounded flesh on horses, cows, and sheep, as well as eating some grain and fruit. But they also pick ticks off livestock and eat enormous quantities of insects and mice, including crop pests. Like their Gray Jay relative, they also follow larger carnivores about, snatching bits of their prey.

Magpies are one of the most beautiful birds on the planet, and if they were less common, people everywhere would love them. They’ve a foot-long, iridescent green tail, longer than the rest of their black-and-white body. This pied coloration may have contributed to the name, or the pie may be onomatopoeic for its call. All dictionaries consider the mag to be a pet form of the name Margaret. The same species found in western North America is found in Europe and Asia, too. Lewis and Clark were the first white people to find magpies in North America, and noted in their expedition journals the magpie’s quickness to take advantage of their food supplies, invading their tents and snatching food from their dishes.

Although magpies are a western species, they range regularly into Minnesota and occasionally travel to Wisconsin, where there have been a total of 35 reported sightings over the years. The first one I saw in Minnesota was along the north shore of Lake Superior in Cook County. They used to be considered an occasional fall migrant and winter visitor to the northwestern corner of the state, but in the past 35 or so years, they’ve become breeders there, and a small resident population has even sprung up near Meadowlands. You might see them any time of year near the Meadowlands sewage ponds. They spend much of their time on the ground, but in summer when the grass is tall, you’re more likely to spot them flying through an open field. These big, tasty birds are slow fliers, safest from predators where there are trees and shrubs to hide in.

Considering that they weigh only 5–7 ounces, magpies make enormous nests, roofed over with thorny materials. Ordinary nests are about 2 feet in height and 1 foot in diameter, but nests as large as 4 feet high, 4 feet long, and 40 inches wide have been found. The outside is made of big sticks as much as 2 feet long; the inside is lined with soft hair, fur, soft rootlets and fine plant stems, and glued together with mud and fresh cow dung. They normally produce 7 babies in a single brood, but because they have so many enemies, the numbers of magpies don’t normally increase from year to year. Once magpies have finished with a nest, other birds use it for nesting or just as a place to duck in during a hail storm or other severe weather. That sturdy roof on top can protect creatures long after the magpies have moved on.

Over the ages, magpies have been nuisances to people, but endearing ones. Native people often kept them as pets. One early European explorer, Nuttall, wrote that he:

found these birds so familiar and greedy as to be easily taken, as they approached the encampment for food, by the Indian boys, who kept them prisoners. They soon became reconciled to their confinement, and were continually hopping around and struggling for any offal thrown to them.

Reading this made me think what a perfect present a pet magpie would have been for my friend Lisa, if only she’d been born a hundred years earlier.