Korean magpie

Photo credit: Yoo Chung.


Magpies know their own faces. Put a mirror in front of them, and they know it’s them, and not another bird. During one particular study, scientists placed a white mark on the chest of a captive magpie named Gerti. The mark, situated just below Gerti’s beak, was only visible in the mirror. Gerti, the clever bird that he was, noticed the mark immediately, and he began to claw at it, using his reflection as a guide.


As far as we know, only a few species can recognize their own reflections—Asian elephants, chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, bottlenose dolphins, killer whales, humans, and magpies. Thus far, mirror-recognition studies have focused on the European magpie (Pica pica), but it’s likely that their new-world counterpart, the black-billed magpie (Pica hudsonia), has similar abilities.


Black-billed magpies are some of the most common birds in the interior west. They fly in short bursts, and their wings flick out like paper fans, exposing glossy, ivory-white undersides. A deep, jeweled blue runs along their sides and all the way down their tails. As magpies pump through the air, their long tails sail behind them, like pieces of blue-black ribbon aloft, and wavering.


They live among us, in small towns, suburbs, and cities. One can see them hopping across lawns, or swooping down over parking lots, their iridescent tails streaming behind them. To some, magpies are thought of as troublemakers—they’re slandered as thieves, and pests, because, at times, they dine on our blueberry patches, or snatch pretzels from our picnic tables.


Admittedly, magpies are opportunists. Unlike many other birds, magpies can smell, and they use this sense to help with their thievery. They steal meat from the mouths of coyotes. They scavenge ticks from the backs of moose. And, if they come upon more ticks than they can eat, they’ll store their catch for later, keeping the ticks alive so they can reproduce.


Perhaps because of the magpie’s trickster image, many humans feel animosity towards them. A quick YouTube search for “magpies roosting” turns up, not magpies roosting, but videos of dead magpies, laid limply on the soil, often next to the guns that shot them. One video is titled “Air Rifle Hunting – Magpies Pest Control”. Another is called “Air Rifle Hunting. Another Magpie in The Bag.” Yet another is called “Should You Hate Magpies?”


Few humans appreciate the magpie’s guttural squawk, which is a call similar to that of its cousin, the crow. Like crows, magpies are social, and brave—if provoked, they’ll stand up to owls, hawks, and other raptors, through a group-attack behavior known as “mobbing”.  In the bird world, magpies are both fearless and feared. Smaller songbirds hide from them, and, because of this, many bird-lovers shoo magpies from bird feeders.


To some, magpies are associated with superstition. In the British Isles, it’s considered bad luck to see a magpie flying alone. Magpies mate for life, and, if all is well, they rarely separate from their partner.


Magpie couples spend five months building nests from branches, roots, leaves, and grass. Often, multiple magpie families nest in the same trees or shrubs, forming colonies that can number in the hundreds. At night they roost together for protection and companionship.


Chicks stay with their parents for about two months, and then they fly out into the world, banding together with other young magpies in the community. In spring, unmated magpies meet up in congregations known as “Magpie Parliaments”, where they have the chance to mingle and find their mates.


When a magpie dies, whether by fault of a gun, car, or natural causes, his fellow magpies hold something like a funeral service. The first magpie to discover the body calls wildly—yelling, crying. A circle of magpies forms around the body. They stand watch over their deceased friend for hours. They fight off foxes or coyotes who threaten to take his body away. All the while, their cries of distress continue, again and again, over and over, their necks hunched, their eyes locked on their friend. Very carefully, they nudge his body with their beaks, grooming his feathers, tugging at them, remembering their particular sheen and softness. Their movements are slow, and full of deliberation. Every so often, they nudge him again, gently, with the edges of their claws, in a desperate attempt to stir him awake. At dusk they take his body in their beaks and drag him to a safe, covered spot beneath a bush. His mate lingers at his side, still plucking desperately at his feathers. At last, when the sun falls, she says her one, final good-bye, and, heavily, emptily, she flies away, and she leaves him.


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