BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: Black-billed magpies are a bird of striking beauty
I first moved to the Becida area, about 15 miles southwest of Bemidji, around 1992. A few years later I moved away but moved back again in 2002 and have been here ever since. Bird life has always been plentiful and diverse throughout the area all year long. One bird, however, has in recent years become more abundant: the black-billed magpie.
Their astonishingly long 24-inch tails, and their flashing white wing patches and white bellies contrasting with iridescent green and black breasts, backs, and wing coverts, are diagnostic. Indeed, no other wild bird looks like a magpie.
Even so, the black-billed magpie has several close relatives. The American crow, common raven, blue jay, and gray jay are all Minnesota birds belonging to the same family, Corvidae. And like all corvids, magpies are very intelligent.
During my time managing an Audubon Society wildlife refuge north of Crookston, I came to know magpies quite well. The birds fascinated me. Until then, I had only observed the interesting birds a few times.
Next to the visitor center where I worked stood an old white spruce tree that for several years supported the unusual nest of a breeding pair of magpies. Every morning as I walked across the yard to my office, I would pass below the nest tree. During the nesting season, and especially after their chicks had hatched, I usually received a scolding by the anxious adult magpies.
I remember one late autumn day when I climbed high into the canopy of a different spruce tree to get a closer look at a magpie’s unusual nest. It was about the size of a basketball and it had no nest bowl. Instead of the conventional bird nest in which the occupants are in plain view from above, a magpie’s nest is more like what you would encounter when examining a gray squirrel’s nest.
Constructed of almost exclusively twigs and mud, it had two entrance holes along the sides of the dome-like structure. It was lined inside with fine grasses and hair. I later learned after doing some research that it can take a pair of magpies up to 40 days to construct a nest. That’s a long time when you consider the nesting season is fairly short anyway. But since magpies are year-round residents, time is on their sides.
The magpie is a vocal bird that emits a nasal-sounding “mag-mag-mag” or “yak-yak-yak.” One often hears a magpie before observing one. Aside from their distinctive vocalizations, I am always struck by the elegant flight of the magpie. Its long and flowing tail give this bird the appearance of nearly effortless flight. They seem to just float through the air.
Magpies are frequently associated with carrion. They, along with crows and ravens, are usually the first to arrive at a carcass. In fact, in areas where coyotes and wolves inhabit, it has been observed that these mammals will follow flocks of corvids, including magpies, apparently understanding that the birds could potentially lead them to food.
But what about that name magpie? As mentioned, magpies are raucous birds. So noisy, it is said, that Noah had them ride on the Ark’s roof instead of inside. Really though, the bird’s name has more to do with its personality. “Mag” is derived from Margaret, which is the name often used in proverbs about those who talk a lot. And “Pie” is derived from the Latin genus name of the magpie, “pica.” Pica results from "picus," the Latin name for woodpecker and picus comes from “pingere,” which means “to paint,” thus referring to magpies' colorful plumage.
And such is life. The graceful, black-billed magpie, a bird of striking beauty, commonly seen in the open landscape of prairie and farmland, now increasingly more common in the forest, too, are yet another wild bird to see and appreciate as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.