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A Bird in Hand

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A Bird in Hand

The black-billed magpie: beautiful bird, ugly name


Why magpie? Why not the Lovely Long-tailed Tri-colored Crow or the Fan-tailed Blue-Green Mega-Jay? But magpie? Anything but magpie. What does that mean, anyway? My trusty New American Oxford Dictionary answers the question. Evidently magpie is a shortened form of the 16th-century vernacular maggot the pie, later maggoty-pie, then shortened to the present magpie. Magot is the early Middle English diminutive of Marguerite. So I guess those folks, way back when, thought that they were giving the bird a cutesy girl’s name, like Brenda or something. Does cutie-pie ring a bell? 

On the other hand, pie is the Middle English form of an Old French word taken from the Latin pica, which is the Latin name for the bird and its taxonomic genus. Thus the Black-billed Magpie’s scientific name is Pica hudsonia. Whew, I guess that makes it all clear. Still ugly is as ugly sounds. 

But this is a gorgeous bird! It is unmistakable. That long black tail, which turns a beautiful dark iridescent green in the sun, is a definitive field mark. The blue wing primaries, the white belly and back, and the black hood sweeping over the shoulders and chest are unlike any other bird—real or imagined. It is no wonder that these crow-sized birds are a favorite of so many people. 

Take note of the full name for this critter, which identifies it according to its black bill. This is to contrast it from the Yellow-billed Magpie which lives exclusively in central and southern California. A near identical bird, but the two species do not, by and large, overlap.  

You’ve probably noticed that our magpie prefers open areas, such as fields, farmlands, and dry scrub. These open areas facilitate observing the birds as they fully display their glorious colors and patterns when in flight. And you’ll notice that they are almost always in pairs. The males and females are indistinguishable, though the male will be the larger of the two. 

The magpie also sounds like a jay. Its collection of screeches and stutters will remind you of other corvidae, such as the Steller’s Jay, the Western Scrub-Jay, and Clark’s Nutcraker. Your approach can get them excited; the closer you get, the noisier they get, so have at it! Trust me, they can fly faster than you can walk. And it is when in flight that you will see those big, under-wing white patches. 

These magpies are also famous for their huge, domed nests. They build a nest that seems far larger than necessary and it is often covered with a roof. You will know it when you see it. And as these folks are year-round residents, if you have magpies in your area, search the big trees carefully. Perhaps with the leaves off of the trees this winter the nests will be easier to find.

Like their cousins the crows and jays, magpies will eat any and everything—from road-kill deer to fruit, and other bird eggs and nestlings to insects. The world is its banquet. They do have a reputation of preying excessively on song birds, but as with many other such reputations, it is not founded in fact. Yes, they will occasionally scoop a baby bird out of a nest for dinner, but we all succumb at one time or another to fast food. It’s a vicious world out there and magpies are not vegans. 

Happy birding!


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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

outdoors, birding, black-billed magpie

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