The other day I was at my partner's parent's house. There is a young magpie hanging about their place at the moment. It isn't afraid of people, and often goes up real close to you when you're out side, just to be cheeky.

That day I saw it and threw a few leaves towards it which it jumped up and caught! I thought that this was really cool, so after dropping my partner's daughter in the house, I stopped and started having a bit of a play with the magpie (which had been dubbed Maggie).

I was holding out sticks and Maggie was grabbing the end and playing tug-o'-war with me with the stick.

I managed to reach out and pat it and it rolled over onto it's back and kept biting the stick. It gave me a few nips from time to time and kept squawking constantly, but generally enjoyed the game.

My partner's daughter came out to see what I was doing. She had bare feet, and Maggie, spotting these lilly-white digits made a bee-line for them and started nipping her toes. She got a hell of a fright and ran screaming inside.

It was extremely funny, but I had to act the concerned adult and go see if she was alright.

Magpies can be good pets, but you have to teach them not to bite as they can become quite vicious when they get used to people.

He falls gracefully,
As if 'a wing,
And lands with the
Touch of a feather,
Upon his metal

Australian magpies, Gymnorhina tibicen, are larger, sleeker and more predatory-looking than their European counterpart. They are about 45 cm long, standing tall on surprisingly long, black, athletic looking legs that enable a very arrogant looking strutting gait along the ground. The beak is long and knife-like, with a black tip that fades to pale grey towards the body. The eyes are dark red with a round black pupil. The body is shiny black, except for a large white cowl over the back of the neck and shoulders, and smaller white patches on the leading edge of the wing and the rump.

In the air they are agile, flying quietly with fairly rapid beating of the wings. Their most infamous aerial manauver is the breeding season dive-bombing of any passing biped, as has been mentioned by FishHead. They drop from 40 feet up at high speed, aiming their rather evil looking beak at the back of the intruder's head. I have vague memories of being told as a small child that wearing an overturned 1-litre plastic ice cream tub with some eyes painted on the back on your head would deter them.

Their call is highly distinctive, with a long, burbling, liquid carol used to advertise their territorial interests, one of the most attractive bird calls of the Australian bush. Fledgling magpies are slightly less pleasurable to the ear. They follow their parents for several months after leaving the nest, slightly thinner and greyer than the adults. The parents will stay close together and forage for food while the baby hops along awkwardly behind, making a constant nagging high pitched nasal-sounding call eerily reminiscent of the noises made by irritable whining human toddlers. An interesting illustration of convergent evolution in action.

They're extremely common throughout much of the country, along the east coast to the south but tending further inland further north, and extending all the way into Westen Australia. Far northern and western birds have slightly different plumage to the eastern variety described here, but are the same species. They breed in October and November, laying one to six eggs in a nest in a high tree lined with feathers. The offspring mature extremely slowly, taking years to reach sexual maturity.

Yellow-billed magpie

The black-billed magpie (Pica pica) occurs across Europe, Asia, North Africa and western North America, an exceedingly common bird.

The yellow-billed magpie (Pica nuttalli), identical in appearance to its black-billed relative except for bill color, occurs only in an area about 500 miles north to south and about 150 miles across, in the central part of California. Within that limited range they are quite common, nesting in colonies in groves of tall trees. They are most numerous in open country and where riverside groves of oaks, cottonwoods and sycamores border upon farmland. They are omnivorous, eating whatever they can get, from acorns to carrion to grasshoppers...whatever is available. Their nests are a bit smaller than those of the black-billed magpie (a domed structure more often two feet in diameter than the three feet of the latter species), and they tend to lay fewer eggs. Black-billed magpies fledge (leave the nest) in 25 - 29 days. The fledging time for yellow-billed magpies is not known.

All magpies are noisy and rather aggressive, from the family Corvidae, which also includes the crows, the jays and the ravens. Like their relatives, intelligent, adaptable birds.

But....what's with the yellow bill? And the other slight but perhaps important differences? How did this come about? Why only in Central California? Was one bird, long ago, a mutant and spread this mutation across this area only? The two, black-billed and yellow-billed, do not occur together. In California, the black-billed magpie is found only in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and to the east (all the way across the center of the continent); the yellow-billed only in the Central Valley.

One of nature's little puzzles. Perhaps DNA studies could answer some of these questions, but in a world of limited funding, where we have far more important (to us) matters to investigate than yellow-billed magpies, the answer may never be known. The magpies, so far as we can tell, don't care.


For the factual information see Kaufman, Kenn, Lives of North American Birds, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, New York, 1996

Eurasian magpie

Eurasian magpies (Pica pica) are black and white birds of the corvid family, known for their exceptional intelligence and notorious for their love of shiny objects. A large number of related or similar birds around the world are also known as magpies, but Pica pica were the first to get the name. They eat varied diets - mainly insects and worms, but they are not averse to carrion and some vegetable foods, and they will occasionally swoop down onto small birds and devour them. They are about 18 inches long, but most of that is tail. Their most characteristic sound is a rapid chattering call, something like a hostile laugh, but they are vocally versatile. In captivity, like other birds of the crow family, they have been known to imitate human speech.

One for sorrow, two for joy

These are social birds that usually mate for life, and they often share a roost with many other magpies, especially in the winter. This makes them natural candidates for a counting rhyme - you can almost always get past that ominous 'one for sorrow' if you look around. Groups of magpies are called tidings. Magpies themselves have been known to master the art of counting, and they are adept at dividing portions fairly amongst their young. They are generally thought to be some of the most intelligent animals around, on a level with monkeys and squids and significantly smarter than most dogs.

Three for a girl, four for a boy

I said before that they are black and white, but that's only half-true - their tail and wing feathers, black at first glance, shimmer with a blue-green iridescence when they catch the light. Their markings are described as pied, a term which derives from their earlier name, 'pie'. Slightly oddly, they do not fit the normal definition of pied markings, which are usually asymmetric. Religious robes were the first things to be described as 'pied', but now the term is mostly used of animals and pipers. The food we call pie may have been named after the birds as well, probably for their love of collecting together seemingly random objects. The older name for magpies can be traced back to their Latin name, pica, from a root having to do with sharpness, like the modern English 'pick' and indeed the Spanish word 'pica'. Whether this was for the sharpness of their beak, tail or intellect is unclear. Pica is also the word for a pathological urge to eat things that are not food, apparently named after magpies' unfussy diets. The birds started being known as maggoty-pies in the late 16th century, from a shortening of Margaret rather than an association with larvae - not that a magpie would turn up its beak at such juicy treats. The French called them Margot-la-pie, and in modern France a female magpie is a mèrgot while the bird in general is still a pie. Compare Tom-Tit, Cock-Robin and Ralph.

Five for a fiddler, six for a dance

Although they are not known for their singing, magpies turn up in a lot of songs, including several by really excellent artists. Both Beth Orton and The Mountain Goats have songs called 'Magpie', and Maddy Prior sings a folk song of the same name which incorporates a version of the counting rhyme - as does the Counting Crows' 'A Murder of One'. Marvellous folk music collective 'Two for Joy' and vocals-and-electronic-music act '2forJoy', both based in London, take their name from the rhyme.

Seven for old England, Eight for France

Magpies of the genus Pica are found across almost the whole of Europe, parts of the Middle East, much of the former USSR, East Asia and the western part of North America. The Black-Billed Magpie found in North America is practically indistinguishable from the Eurasian Magpie, but is sometimes considered a separate species; it is more closely related to the Yellow-Billed Magpie, but even this is very much like the European version except for the colour of its beak. The Korean magpie, with a shorter tail, longer wings and a purpler sheen to its feathers, is also the subject of some dispute - either there are four different species of Pica, or else they are all just subspecies of Pica pica.

The name 'magpie' is also applied to a range of other related or similar birds. The other magpies tend to be more brightly coloured than those of the genus Pica, being divided into the Azure-Winged Magpies and various species of blue-green Oriental Magpies. Azure-Winged Magpies are found in Spain and Portugal, and also in much of East Asia. Mysteriously, though, there is a stretch of about 5,000 miles in between where they are not known at all. The Oriental Magpies, found in various parts of Asia, are further divided into two genera: the short-tailed greenish Cissa and the elegant, long-tailed Urocissa, which tend more toward the blueish.

The Australian Magpie is not closely related to the true magpies, which is no surprise if you have ever heard how beautifully they sing, but they do have similar quite markings and intellects. Treepies are pretty closely related to magpies, but they count as a completely separate family - which includes the Black Magpie, despite its name. Other things which are not really magpies include several football clubs; Protoploea apatela, which is a species of nymphalid butterfly known as 'the Magpie'; and the Magpie Moth Abraxas grossulariata, which is in the Geometrid family.


Mag"pie (?), n. [OE. & Prov. E. magot pie, maggoty pie, fr. Mag, Maggot, equiv. to Margaret, and fr. F. Marquerite, and common name of the magpie. Marguerite is fr. L. margarita pearl, Gr. , prob. of Eastern origin. See Pie magpie, and cf. the analogous names Tomtit, and Jackdaw.] Zool.

Any one of numerous species of the genus Pica and related genera, allied to the jays, but having a long graduated tail.

⇒ The common European magpie (Pica pica, or P. caudata) is a black and white noisy and mischievous bird. It can be taught to speak. The American magpie (P. Hudsonica) is very similar. The yellow-belled magpie (P. Nuttalli) inhabits California. The blue magpie (Cyanopolius Cooki) inhabits Spain. Other allied species are found in Asia. The Tasmanian and Australian magpies are crow shrikes, as the white magpie (Gymnorhina organicum), the black magpie (Strepera fuliginosa), and the Australian magpie (Cracticus picatus).

Magpie lark Zool., a common Australian bird (Grallina picata), conspicuously marked with black and white; -- called also little magpie. -- Magpie moth Zool., a black and white European geometrid moth (Abraxas grossulariata); the harlequin moth. Its larva feeds on currant and gooseberry bushes.


© Webster 1913.

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