“He is a handsome creature, with snowy white decorations, and is a singer; he has a murmurous rich note that is lovely. He has talent, and cuteness, and impudence; and in his tame state he is a most satisfactory pet — never coming when he is called, always coming when he isn’t, and studying disobedience as an accomplishment.” — Mark Twain (1835-1910)
Black-billed magpies are familiar, noisy and entertaining birds of Idaho and the western half of North America. They sit on fence posts and road signs or flap across rangelands, their white wing patches flashing and their very long tails trailing behind them.
This large, flashy relative of jays and crows is a social creature, gathering in numbers to feed on carrion. They’re also vocal birds and keep up a regular stream of raucous calls.
The black-billed magpie, also known as the American magpie, is a handsome black and white bird with black areas on the wings and tail showing iridescent hints of blue or blue-green. His black and white colors gives him one of his nicknames, “the tuxedo bird.” It is one of four North American songbirds whose tail makes up half or more of its total body length.
The magpie prefers generally open habitats with clumps of trees. It can therefore be found in farmlands and suburban areas, where it comes into regular contact with people. When persecuted it becomes very wary, but otherwise it is fairly tolerant of human presence.
Historically associated with bison herds, it now lands on the back of cattle to clean ticks and insects from them. Large predators such as wolves are commonly followed by black-billed magpies, who scavenge from their kills. The magpie also walks on the ground, where it obtains such food as beetles, grasshoppers, worms and small rodents.
Historical records of the American West indicate that black-billed magpies have been associates of people for a long time. When Lewis and Clark first encountered magpies in 1804 in South Dakota, they reported the birds as being very bold, entering tents or taking food from the hand.
Magpies formerly followed American bison herds, as well as bands of Plains Indians which hunted the bison so they could scavenge carcasses. When the bison herds were devastated in the 1870s, magpies switched to cattle, and by the 1960s they had also moved into the emerging towns and cities of the North American West. Today black-billed magpies remain relatively tame in areas where they are not persecuted. However, they become very wary in areas where they are often shot at or disturbed.
Adult black-billed magpie pairs stay together year-round and often for life unless one dies, in which case the remaining magpie may find another mate. The nests are loose with large accumulations of branches, twigs, mud, grass, bark strips, vines, needles and other soft material. Branches and twigs constitute the base and framework of the nest. Nests almost always include a hood or dome of loosely assembled twigs and branches, and usually have one or more side entrances.
Nests are built by both sexes over 40-50 days, generally in February or March. Magpies can use old nests if repaired, or a new nest can be built on top, with older nests thus reaching 48 inches high by 40 inches wide. Other species including small hawks and owls often use old magpie nests.
The breeding season for magpies is generally from late March to early July. They nest once a year, but may re-nest if their first attempt fails early. The female lays up to 13 eggs, but the usual clutch size is six or seven. The eggs are greenish grey, marked with browns, and about 1.3 inches long. Only the female incubates, for 16-21 days. The male feeds the female throughout incubation. The young fly three to four weeks after hatching. The lifespan of a magpie in the wild is about four to six years.
The magpie is known by many names in American folklore, including Whiskey Jack, collector, hoarder, pack rat, gatherer, chatterer, babbler, prattler, chatterbox, yammerer, yapper and tuxedo bird. Magpie is also used in similes or comparisons to refer to a person who collects things, especially things of little use or value, or refer to a person who chit-chats idly like a chatterbox.
Enjoy the outdoors!