Friday, July 5, 2013

Black-billed Magpie

Black-billed magpie seen at Cub Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park
Corvids are extremely, if not obnoxiously, smart; being considered the most intelligent of birds and among the most intelligent animals we know. Corvidae members include crows, ravens, magpies, rooks, jays, nutcrackers, jackdaws, treepies and choughs. With a brain-to-body mass ratio equal to great apes, many have shown signs of self-awareness in mirror tests and demonstrated their ability of tool-making.

Black-billed magpies (Pica hudsonia) find themselves in this unique family of birds. Almost strictly found in the western United States and Canada (saving a few wandering souls), black-billed magpies have a wide-ranging diet, eating just about anything they can get their beak on. They'll consume basic songbird/passerine  diet materials, including fruit, grain, and insects (evening flipping cow dung to find a tasty snack). However, they don't simply stop there. Oh no they don't. They will kill small mammals, such as mice, voles and squirrels. Carrion is also a staple in their diet (and the fly maggots that find their home on carrion), even stealing meat from kills of coyotes, fox, and wolves (puppy dogs even).

However, I can't even stop there. Black-billed magpies are often given the nic-name "camp robbers" due to their habit of stealing food from campers, and will even tease a dog to give chase just to fly quickly back and grab some food out of the dog bowl. When they come across a relative food abundance, like all corvids they are known to cache food for short periods of time.

Black-billed magpie seen at Fern Lake Fall, Rocky Mountain National Park
You typically find magpies among meadows, grasslands and sagebrush plains in the west. They are often associated with barnyards and livestock areas because there are readily available food sources where livestock roam (who would give up a free, easy meal?). They stay relatively close to cover and can be found on forest edges, but almost never in dense thickets or woods.

Black-billed magpies pairs are known to mate for life (unless one dies) and will remain with each other through the year. When nesting, they are quite different from many other birds. Both sexes seem to choose a nesting site together, but sometimes disagreeing and begin building two separate nests. Their nests are large domes with an average size of 30 inches high and 20 inches across and are typically found by a source of water, be it streams or small ponds.

Black-billed magpie seen at Pikes National Forest
Black-billed magpies ofter have a clutch size of nine eggs, but due to asynchronous hatching (not all the eggs hatch at once) late hatchlings often die from starvation, resulting in a usual yield of 3-4 fledglings (a young bird who just got its flight feathers). After 3-4 weeks of being feed by both parents, they will fledge and fly with the adults for about another 2 months, feeding with adults and learning some tricks of the trade before flying off to join others their age.

Interesting tid-bits:
  • Lewis and Clark reported that magpies were caught entering their tents to steal food
  • It typically takes a magpie pair 40-50 days to make their nest
  • The longest-living magpie recorded is 9 years, 4 months.
  • Indulges in "anting" - placing ants on their plumage to aid with the cleaning process

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