By David Cronenwett
Hunting this fall, I rounded a bend and flushed a gaggle of magpies from a deer carcass. I was clumsy and sleepy in the twilight but immediately knew what the commotion of black and white birds meant; stop what you are doing, wake up and look around, immediately. The streamside forest was incredibly dense and a known travel corridor for grizzly bears and other toothy beasts. This wasn’t the first time I’d been warned by magpies to pay attention, and I’m always grateful for the heads up. In this instance there was no big predator in the area but the event did get me thinking about the birds.
The Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia) ranges from south central Alaska down through the American southwest but strangely, does not extend east of the Mississippi. Reasons for this are unclear; however, literature suggests that oppressive heat and humidity may play a role. The species is not known to be migratory. While it is possible for pairs to mate for life, there are many populations where “divorce” is known to happen, with some regions consistently showing higher rates than others. Magpie nests are large, elaborate “domed” stick constructions that both sexes build. The nearly three-foot diameter structure has two entrances and a soft interior lining, which the female maintains. Young are born altricial (relatively helpless) and are fed carrion almost exclusively. This may be an adaptation to provide the substantial calories needed for the development of large brains that magpies are known for. In Montana, they will use grassland, riparian and various open-forest habitats across the state.
These birds are large, unmistakable and often noisy members of the family Corvidae; crows, ravens and jays. I am always struck by the propensity of visiting birders from the East who remark about the beauty of magpies with their black-white-iridescent green coloration, stunningly long tails and gregarious nature. But the same cannot be said for many people who occupy habitat alongside magpies. Working with school groups from around the state, I’ve heard many accounts from young kids about shooting, poisoning or otherwise harassing magpies for varying reasons and often just for something to do. Even some birders loath the magpie for its habit of occasional nest predation and the perceived cruelty of this in our minds.
Part of our magpie animosity may also have been inherited from Europe when the birds, along with other corvids, showed up on post-conflict battlefields, feeding on human dead (and near dead) in large numbers. Like all opportunistic scavenging omnivores, magpies will not refuse a meal no matter how distasteful it is to us. They have a long association with people wherever we interact; in Montana they were known to follow Native hunters across the plains to feed on entrails and other remains from buffalo kills.
Newer research shows magpies and their cousins to be some of Nature’s most intelligent creatures. Like crows, they have demonstrated the ability to recognize their own reflection (an awareness of self) as well as individual human faces over time. Their most notable behavior is the so-called “funeral procession”; when coming across a dead magpie, another of their kind will call out until a group is gathered. Each bird will take turns gently pecking the deceased and may gather grass, pine needles or other vegetation to lay near the fallen. After a few more minutes of silent vigil, the birds disperse singly. This kind of activity raises fascinating questions and suggests that emotions and sophisticated cognitive behavior is not the sole realm of human beings.
Like any other birder, I enjoy the unusual and rare species that occur in Montana. But I also hold a special appreciation for common ones like the Black-billed Magpie. Their scavenging lifestyle forces us to look at the more unpleasant aspects of Nature, which is sometimes cold and without mercy. The magpie in its humble way, demonstrates that there is a price to be paid for all of that beauty out there.