Magpies

OVERVIEW

Included in the bird family Corvidae along with crows, ravens, and jackdaws, magpies are found across the world. One of only two types in North America, the American magpie — otherwise known as the black-billed magpie — is infamous for troubling both farmers and gardeners. Magpies are known to be incredibly intelligent as they learn quickly, can mimic human speech, and utilize teamwork to collect food.
Magpies have lived in close association with humans for centuries. They are found throughout the Northern Hemisphere and are a common bird of tales and superstitions.

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Biology & Behavior

Black-billed magpies are members of a bird family that also includes ravens, crows, and jays. They are easily distinguished from other birds by their size and striking black and white color pattern. They have unusually long tails, half their body length, and short rounded wings. The feathers of the tail and wings are iridescent, reflecting a bronzy green to purple. They have white bellies and shoulder patches and their wings flash white in flight. ​Two distinct species are found in North America, and the black-billed species is found in Utah. Black-billed magpies average 19 inches in length and half a pound in weight. They have black beaks and no eye patches. They are typically found close to water in relatively open areas with scattered trees and thickets. ​Magpies are omnivorous and very opportunistic. They have a preference for animal matter, primarily insects, but readily take anything that is available. Congregations of magpies can commonly be seen along roadsides feeding on animals killed by cars or in ripening fruit or nut orchards. They also pick insects from the backs of large animals. Their diet changes during the year reflecting the availability of foods during the different seasons. ​Eight percent of black-billed magpie’s diet consist of insects, carrion small mammals, small wild birds, hatchlings, and eggs. The balance of its diet consists of fruits and grains. Magpies often store or cache food items in shallow pits that they dig in the ground. ​Magpies are intelligent birds that learn quickly and seem to sense danger. They mimic calls of other birds and can learn to imitate some human words. They readily adapt to the presence of humans and take advantage of the food sources provided. ​Nest building typically begins in early March for black-billed magpies. They build large nest, some 48 inches high by 40 inches high, in bushes or in trees usually within 25 feet of the ground. Magpie nests are usually found in small colonies. Other species of birds and mammals often use magpie nests after they have been abandoned. ​Black-billed magpies lay 6 to 9 eggs. Incubation normally starts in April. The incubation is 16 to 18 days and young are able to fly 3 to 4 weeks after hatching. Young forage with the adults and then join other groups in summer to form loose flocks. Winter congregations may include more than 50 individuals.

Diseases

Damage

Magpies can cause substantial damage locally to crops such as almonds, cherries, corn, walnuts, melons, grapes, peaches, wheat, figs, and milo. Their damage is probably greatest in areas where insects and other foods are relatively unavailable. ​Magpies are often found near livestock where they feed the insects attracted to dung and carrion. They also forage for ticks and insects on the backs of domestic animals. Perhaps the most notorious magpie behavior is the picking of open wounds and scabs on the backs of livestock. Magpies, like ravens, may peck the eyes out of newborn or sick livestock. ​Magpies eat eggs and hatchlings from wild bird and poultry nests. They can be very destructive to poultry during the nesting season when magpie parents are gathering food for their young. Magpies can be a nuisance because of their excessive noise and the odor than can be associated with their droppings.

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