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What is a Magpie?

Nick Doniger
Nick Doniger

The magpie is a bird found in many parts of the world. These birds are related to crows, ravens, and jays, and are known for behavior that is considered a nuisance to humans and other animals. As scavengers, magpies may peck at living or dead animals, and cause damage to human crops.

Yellow-billed and black-billed magpies are the most common types found in North America, generally living on the West Coast, though magpies in other parts of the world may live in warmer climates. One of the traits that sets magpies apart from other birds is the apparent ability to recognize their own reflections in mirrors.

Magpies are known for pecking at livestock.
Magpies are known for pecking at livestock.

Most species of magpies are members of the Corvid family, along with crows, ravens, and jays. The Australian Magpie is a member of the Artamidae family, however. Like ravens and jays, magpies are subject to superstition and are well known for being a nuisance. This birds' squawks range from being whiny sounding to harsh, and the bird is known to sometimes mimic human and animal sounds. Magppies adapt easily to the presence of humans, and may sometimes be unusually bold animals.

Farmers are typically not fond of magpies, as they can cause damage to crops.
Farmers are typically not fond of magpies, as they can cause damage to crops.

The birds are known for damaging crops, pecking at livestock, and stealing poultry eggs and hatchlings. Magpies may be kept away from crops with netting. Frightening tactics, such as human presence and the use of scarecrows, also proves effective in keeping magpies away from crops, livestock, and poultry.

Many species of magpie birds are distinguished by black and white coloration, with a long tail and short wings. As several different types of magpies exist, some variation in appearance exists. The black-billed magpie, for example, is a bit larger than the yellow-billed magpie. Additionally, as its names implies, the beaks are colored differently.

Yellow-billed and Black-billed magpies are the two most common magpies found in North America. The geographic location of the black-billed birds ranges from Alaska to Canada and into California. These birds tend to migrate to lower elevations during the winter. Yellow-billed magpies are found mostly in central to south California, and generally do not stray far.

The magpie is generally found in a cool, dry climate. Fairly open, brushy areas near water are preferable to magpies. Some magpies, however, may live in warmer climates, such as the Australian magpie. This bird is found all across Australia.

A magpie's diet is mostly carnivorous. Known for being scavengers, they often prey upon small dead animals, bird eggs, insects, and even meat from large animals, such as dead bison. Magpies consume small amounts of fruits and grains as well.

Various phenomena make the magpie unique from other birds. Studies from Germany indicate that a magpie is capable of recognizing its own reflection in mirrors. In such studies, colored marks were put right underneath the birds' beaks. When placed in front of mirrors, the magpies saw their reflections and tried to scratch at the colored marks, giving evidence that the birds knew what they were looking at. This trait was previously only believed to be possessed by humans and a few other mammals.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a magpie?

A magpie is a bird belonging to the family Corvidae, known for its distinctive black and white plumage and long tail. These intelligent birds are found in various parts of the world and are known for their complex social behavior, vocal abilities, and attraction to shiny objects. They play a significant role in cultural folklore and are often associated with superstitions.

How many species of magpies are there?

There are roughly 17 species of magpies globally, with variations in size, color, and habitat. The most widely recognized species is the Eurasian magpie (Pica pica), which is native to Europe, Asia, and North Africa. Other species, like the Black-billed Magpie and the Australian Magpie, are found in North America and Australia, respectively.

Are magpies considered intelligent birds?

Yes, magpies are considered highly intelligent. They have demonstrated self-awareness in mirror tests, an ability that is rare among non-mammalian species. Magpies are also known for their problem-solving skills and complex social structures, which require advanced cognitive abilities. Their intelligence is comparable to that of other smart birds like crows and ravens.

What do magpies typically eat?

Magpies are omnivorous and have a diverse diet that includes insects, small mammals, fruits, seeds, and carrion. They are opportunistic feeders and may also prey on the eggs and young of other birds. Their diet can vary seasonally and depending on the availability of food sources in their habitat.

Can magpies mimic human speech or sounds?

Magpies are part of the corvid family, which is known for its vocal abilities, and some magpie species can indeed mimic human speech and other sounds. The Australian Magpie, for example, is particularly noted for its impressive vocalizations, which can include mimicking other bird calls, animals, and even mechanical noises.

Do magpies mate for life?

Many magpie species form long-term pair bonds and are considered to be monogamous, often mating for life. These pairs work together to raise their young and defend their territories. However, like in many bird species, instances of extra-pair copulations can occur, meaning that they may not always be exclusively faithful to their partners.

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    • Magpies are known for pecking at livestock.
      By: branex
      Magpies are known for pecking at livestock.
    • Farmers are typically not fond of magpies, as they can cause damage to crops.
      By: Johan Larson
      Farmers are typically not fond of magpies, as they can cause damage to crops.