Magpies — smart, witty birds –

November 16, 2022
When I moved to Colorado, I was excited to see new Western bird species and it didn’t take long to add my first bird of Colorado. The excitement occurred after my husband and I drove over Monarch Pass, down to the valley prior to arriving in Gunnison.
A beautiful black and white bird with an impressive long, iridescent tail with flashes of blue-green highlights flew across the road in front of our car. By the time we arrived in Gunnison we had seen many of these birds mostly in groups along the highway and in fields, pastures and ditches.
We stopped at a restaurant, and I inquired about this bird to the owner. She gave me a funny look and immediately said, ‘You just saw a nuisance bird.’ She was referring to a Black-billed Magpie, which were just about everywhere. I thought to myself, how could a bird that beautiful be a nuisance?
Later, after seeing and reading about this bird I found out that the Black-billed Magpie is in the corvid family, which also includes crows, ravens, jays, and Clark’s Nutcracker. This group of birds are at the top of the bird chain for overall brain size. Their brain-to-body ratio equals that of dolphins and nearly matches humans.
This group of birds have a bad reputation from some people who think they’re noisy and aggressive toward other bird species. In an earlier era, farmers and ranchers tried to exterminate magpies, but to no avail, and it is common to see them today in open country and towns in Colorado as well as other places in the West.
They usually eat small insects and vertebrates including flies, caterpillars, spiders, worms, eggs of other bird species and just about anything else. In winter they eat more plant material, wild fruit, berries and grains, household scraps and food scavenged from various places.
It is interesting to note that these birds build huge, superior nests, a marvel of engineering. The nest is composed of many hundreds of sticks cemented together with a layer of mud and sometimes cow dung. The nest is then lined with fine roots and stems supplemented with bark fibers, hair and grass. Then, to top it all off, the bird constructs a protective roof of twigs and uses thorny branches to protect its eggs and young from owls and other predators. It is no wonder that it takes about 10 weeks to construct their nests! The female lays an average of 6 or 7 eggs and incubation takes about 16 to 18 days. They only have one brood per year. Both parents feed the young for about 6 to 8 weeks before they fledge and find their own food.
I found out after living in Ouray County how this species earned its reputation for being aggressive. It was the dominant species at my feeders and had a habit of scaring off other, small birds. Magpies could always figure out how to get into a caged feeder with a suet cake hanging inside and they gobbled up the seeds put out for the other birds.
Another time I witnessed a magpie carrying off a small young Robin while the parent watched helplessly. There was nothing she could do! I was beginning to detest this bird.
Then one day a strange thing happened, and I got to witness this bird more closely. I was in my house when I heard a loud racket noise outside our house. I went outside to see what was going on when I saw a hawk carrying off a young Black-billed Magpie. The magpie parents and several other magpies were having a fit, jumping up and down and making all kinds of vocal sounds. The adults seemed to be in mourning. It was a sad thing to witness and that event kind of made me have a different opinion of this bird. I now try to tolerate them and know they are part of our bird world. They are part of nature.
If you want to learn more about these interesting birds, I recommend a very informative book about corvids called, ‘Bird Brains’ by Candace Savage.
THE FOLLOWING BIRDS WERE SIGHTED IN OURAY COUNTY IN OCTOBER 2022: Canada Goose, Wild Turkey, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Golden Eagle, California Gull, Band-tailed Pigeon, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Belted Kingfisher, Hybrid (Red-naped x Red-breasted) Sapsucker**, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker**, Hairy Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Say’s Phoebe, Western Kingbird, Gray Flycatcher, Steller’s Jay, Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, Pinyon Jay, Black-billed Magpie*, American Crow, Common Raven, Mountain Chickadee, Black-capped Chickadee, Juniper Titmouse, Pygmy Nuthatch, White-breasted Nuthatch, American Robin, Townsend’s Solitaire, Mountain Bluebird, Western Bluebird, Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon’s), Green-tailed Towhee, Chipping Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco (Oregon, Slate, Pink-sided, Gray-headed), White-crowned Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Western Meadowlark, Pine Siskin, Lesser & American Goldfinch, Rosy-Finch (Brown-capped), Cassin’s Finch, House Finch, Evening Grosbeak Note: Hybrid Sapsucker &Yellow-bellied Sapsucker were seen by Don Marsh at Ridgway State Park on Oct. 1.
Office address:
1075 Sherman St., #200
Ridgway, Colorado 81432
Mailing address:
PO Box 529
Ridgway CO 81432
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