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Black-billed Magpie

Pica hudsonia ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: CORVIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Black-billed Magpies are familiar and entertaining birds of western North America. They sit on fenceposts and road signs or flap across rangelands, their white wing patches flashing and their very long tails trailing behind them. This large, flashy relative of jays and crows is a social creature, gathering in numbers to feed at carrion. They’re also vocal birds and keep up a regular stream of raucous or querulous calls.

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Keys to identification Help

Crows and Jays
Crows and Jays
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Black-billed Magpies are slightly larger than jays with much longer, diamond-shaped tails and heavier bills. In flight, their wings seem to be too short to support their graceful flight.

  • Color Pattern

    These birds are black and white overall with blue-green iridescent flashes in the wing and tail. The upperparts are mostly black with a white patch in the outer wing and two white stripes (“backpack straps”) on the back.

  • Behavior

    Black-billed Magpies are social, inquisitive birds that eat fruits, grains, insects, small animals, and frequently gather in large flocks at carrion. Magpies move in groups and give a variety of trill, cackle, and whistle calls. They flap steadily in flight, alternating deep and shallow wingbeats, and use their very long tails to negotiate abrupt turns.

  • Habitat

    Black-billed Magpies are widespread in towns, fields, and stream corridors of the West. They also concentrate in flocks at feedlots and other areas where food is easy to find.

Range Map Help

Black-billed Magpie Range Map
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Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    Black-billed Magpie

    Adult
    • Long and slender-bodied
    • Distinctive black and white plumage
    • Often perches prominently in the open
    • © David Hollie, Swan Falls Dam, Murphy, Idaho, April 2009
  • Adult

    Black-billed Magpie

    Adult
    • Slender and graceful with long black tail
    • Bold, contrasting plumage
    • Glossy blue/green iridescence on wings
    • Solid black head
    • © David Stephens, Cherry Creek State Park, Denver, Colorado, January 2010
  • Adult

    Black-billed Magpie

    Adult
    • Slender-bodied with very long tail
    • White belly contrasts with black head and chest
    • Perches conspicuously
    • © Lew Ulrey, Hyatt Wetland, Boise, Idaho, October 2008
  • Adult

    Black-billed Magpie

    Adult
    • Bold, contrasting plumage
    • Stubby black bill
    • Glossy blue iridescence on wings
    • Long, graduated black tail
    • © Mike Wisnicki, Grand Forks, British Columbia, Canada, June 2011
  • Adult

    Black-billed Magpie

    Adult
    • Long and slender
    • Stubby black bill
    • White belly and wing patches contrast with black head
    • © Reid Barclay, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, October 2011
  • Adult

    Black-billed Magpie

    Adult
    • Slender-bodied with long tail
    • Contrasting plumage
    • Stubby black bill
    • Frequently perches out in the open
    • © Stephen, Boulder, Colorado, May 2011
  • Adult

    Black-billed Magpie

    Adult
    • Distinctive long tail trails behind in flight
    • Large white patches on wing-tips
    • Black head and breast
    • © Stuart Oikawa, Manitoba, Canada, November 2011
  • Juvenile

    Black-billed Magpie

    Juvenile
    • Juvenile similar to adult but with shorter tail
    • Bill paler than adult's, with pink gape
    • Like adult, white shoulders contrast with black head and black,
    • © Robinsegg, Heber City, Utah, July 2011

Similar Species

  • Adult

    Yellow-billed Magpie

    Adult
    • Very similar overall to Black-billed, but with obvious yellow bill
    • Small patch of bare yellow skin below eyes
    • Slightly smaller than Black-billed
    • Found only in central California
    • © Jamie Chavez, Los Alamos, California, February 2010

Similar Species

Yellow-billed Magpies are only found around the Central Valley of California; they have bright yellow bills. American Crows and Common Ravens also gather in large, social flocks like magpies, but those species are larger and all black, with shorter tails. Jays are smaller birds with much shorter tails than magpies, and most show some blue. Gray Jays are much smaller than magpies and are mostly gray, not black. Clark’s Nutcrackers are also mostly gray, with shorter tails and smaller white wing patches.

Backyard Tips

In their range, Black-billed Magpies occasionally visit platform bird feeders and suet feeders. They are fairly common in small towns and may visit large yards.

Find This Bird

Black-billed Magpies are noisy, and they have a habit of sitting very conspicuously at the tops of trees or fenceposts, so they can be easy to hear and see. In flight their trailing tail feathers and bright, flashy white wing patches make them unmistakable. Keep an eye in the air for their graceful, gliding flights across open, brushy areas.