Magpies belong to the same family (Corvidae) as other birds thought to be quite intelligent--the crows, ravens and jays. Two types of magpies occur in the United States, with the black-billed magpie having a much larger range in the West, as opposed to the yellow-billed magpie. Magpies are omnivores, eating many different things and often stealing food from other animals and birds.
The black-billed magpie reaches lengths just less than two feet, with the yellow-billed magpie slightly smaller by about two inches. Both species are black and white, possessing elongated black tails, a black head and a black chest with white on their bellies and their shoulders. The wing and tail feathers are iridescent, giving the appearance of blues and purples in the sunlight. The main difference between the two, as their names indicate, is the colors of their bills. The black-billed version has the all-black bill, while the yellow-billed magpie has a yellow bill that goes along with a brilliant yellow ring around its eyes.
The habitat of the yellow-billed magpie is the oak forests of central portions of California. The species occurs nowhere else on earth. The black-billed magpie lives from southern Alaska southward through much of western Canada and into the continental United States. The bird inhabits the western Great Plains and lives in states such as Montana, Utah, Wyoming, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, California, Colorado, Nevada and southern sections of Arizona and New Mexico.
While magpies will consume nuts, seeds and fruit at times, the majority of their diet consists of bugs, small creatures, other birds, their young and the eggs they can pilfer from nests. The magpie is also a scavenger, finding dead animals and descending upon them in numbers to pick their carcasses clean. Magpies will follow predators such as coyotes around and swoop in to get any scraps they leave behind. Large animals like elk and moose allow magpies to land on them and glean any ticks from their bodies that they can find.
Magpies are skilled builders of nests, states the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website. The birds select a spot usually near the top of a tree or large shrub and both the male and female construct the nest. Grass, mud, roots, twigs, sticks, vines, pine needles and other items become part of their nest, which typically takes from 40 to 50 days to complete. The nests can be as deep as four feet and as wide as 40 inches and feature a dome on top to keep out the elements.
Magpies survived persecution from hunters and trappers in the beginning of the 20th century to establish stable populations through most of their range. Their main predators today are raptors such as owls and hawks, while their young and their eggs are at risk from animals like raccoons. Severe weather and lack of food can take a toll on magpies, as can pesticide use in areas where they live. Magpies are not fast while on the wing, but can elude danger by flying into dense cover such as shrubs and thickets.
- magpie image by Henryk Olszewski from Fotolia.com