Black-billed Magpie

Winter is a perfect time to photograph birds. Although the summer residents are not present, the lack of leaves on the trees makes it easy to see and photograph the winter and year-round birds. Soon the wildflowers will blossom and the trees leaf out, providing a little more variety in my posts. Until then. . .

. . . meet the black-billed magpie (Pica hudsonia). This large, boldly patterned bird has an extremely long black tail. For that reason it was called a long tail by Native Americans. With its black head, chest and tail contrasting with a white belly, shoulders and wing patches, the magpie is indeed a striking sight. In the correct light the wings and tail display iridescence, an optical phenomenon where the surfaces change color depending on the angle from which they are viewed. Iridescence is plainly visible in the picture of the magpie on the ground.

Except along the extreme Pacific Coast the black-billed magpie can be found throughout Western North America above Arizona and New Mexico and are generally not migratory. Magpies forage in open areas containing large scattered trees, but can also be found in thickets, along waterways and will live in association with humans.

Although they associate and form large flocks when not nesting, pairs, which usually stay together throughout life, breed and raise their young in solitary nests. Most magpies are believed to breed near where they were hatched.

It is interesting to watch magpies, who forage by hopping along the ground. They will hop about the ground for a while then fly to a branch, fence or other perch where they rest before returning to the ground. Magpies will also land on the back of large mammals such as deer to eat the ticks infesting the animal. The diet of a magpie includes small invertebrates, grains, berries – they will eat almost anything including carrion and garbage. They also prey on the nests of other birds, eating the eggs and hatchlings. Although adults have a varied diet, the magpie chicks are fed meat almost exclusively.

Magpies are considered an intelligent bird and they will briefly cache their food. Other magpies will watch to see where one bird hides its excess food and then steal it. For that reason magpies, if others of their species are in the area, will pretend to bury or hide food in several locations before actually depositing their cache. For the most part they are also very wary. Although it is interesting to observe magpies, they are very cautious about letting me get too near.

I remember how exciting it was to see my first black-billed magpie, a bird not familiar to a child of Western Pennsylvania. All of these pictures were taken on our property in Modoc County CA.

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