Black-billed Magpie Life History

Habitat

Habitat Open WoodlandsBlack-billed Magpies live among the meadows, grasslands, and sagebrush plains of the West. Their nesting territories often follow stream courses. Though they like open areas and are not found in dense woods, they stay close to cover for protection from raptors. Magpies don’t avoid human development, often spending time near barnyards, livestock areas, and grain elevators where they have ready access to food.Back to top

Food

Food OmnivoreLike other corvids (members of the jay and crow family), Black-billed Magpies have a wide-ranging diet. They eat wild fruit and grain, as well as grasshoppers and beetles that they find while foraging on the ground (they sometimes find beetles by flipping cow dung). They also kill small mammals such as squirrels and voles, and raid birds’ nests. Carrion is also a main food source, as are the fly maggots found in carrion. Sometimes they steal meat from the kills of coyotes and foxes. Magpies also land atop large animals, such as cows or moose, and pick ticks off them. When they find an abundant food source, magpies will cache food for short periods.Back to top

Nesting

Nest Placement

Nest TreeBoth sexes seem to choose a nesting site together (though sometimes they disagree and each begin building separate nests in different locations). They build their dome nests in conifer trees, deciduous trees, shrubs, utility poles, and even in deserted buildings. They will nest in open woodlands, riparian thickets, farm fields, and suburban areas.

Nest Description

Black-billed Magpie pairs share the work of building their domed nests, which vary widely in size but are typically about 30 inches high and 20 inches wide. The male gathers sticks for the exterior. The female tends to the interior, forming a mud cup and lining it with grass.

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size:1-9 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
Egg Length:1.2-1.5 in (3-3.7 cm)
Egg Width:0.8-1.0 in (2-2.5 cm)
Incubation Period:16-19 days
Nestling Period:24-30 days
Egg Description:Tan or olive-brown with variable amount of dark brown speckles
Condition at Hatching:Helpless and naked with pink skin. Eyes are closed for the first 7 days.
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Behavior

Behavior Ground ForagerOn the wing, Black-billed Magpies make long, sweeping flights with white flashes of their wing patches and long, trailing tails. They perch at the tops of trees, which is a means of visually establishing their territory, the equivalent of other bird species’ songs. Magpies walk with a swaggering strut. They sometimes gather in flocks, even seemingly living communally, and will band together to mob a raptor. In groups, males establish dominance through a stretch display: raising the bill in the air and flashing their white eyelids. They also show aggression with their wings, flickering or quivering them to display the white wing patches; and tails spreading, quivering, or flicking their elongated tail feathers. During courtship they also use a tail-spreading display. Black-billed Magpies mate for life. The female initiates the pair bond by begging for food from the male, which begins courtship feeding. During breeding, the male stands guard near the female to reduce the chance she’ll mate with another male (which does occur). One of the most notable Black-billed Magpie behaviors is the so-called “funeral”—when one magpie discovers a dead magpie, it begins calling loudly to attract other magpies. The gathering of raucously calling magpies (up to 40 birds have been observed) may last for 10 to 15 minutes before the birds disperse and fly off silently. Back to top

Conservation

Conservation Low ConcernBlack-billed Magpies populations have been decreasing every year from 1966 to 2014, particularly on prairies, resulting in a cumulative decline by about 26%, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 5.4 million, with 63% spending part of the year in the U.S., and 50% in Canada. They rate a 7 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and they are not on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List. They have been vulnerable to toxic chemicals, particularly topical pesticides applied to the backs of cattle which magpies ingest when gleaning ticks off livestock. In the past Black-billed Magpies were persecuted by farmers, ranchers, and game managers who considered them to be vermin, but today they are fully protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.Back to top

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 out more about what this bird likes to eat and what feeder is best by using the Project FeederWatch Common Feeder Birds bird list.

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Credits

Dunne, P. (2006). Pete Dunne's essential field guide companion. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2015.2. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2015.

North American Bird Conservation Initiative. 2014. The State of the Birds 2014 Report. US Department of Interior, Washington, DC, USA.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, J. E. Fallon, K. L. Pardieck, Jr. Ziolkowski, D. J. and W. A. Link. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, results and analysis 1966-2013 (Version 1.30.15). USGS Patuxtent Wildlife Research Center 2014b. Available from http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley guide to birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, USA.

Trost, Charles H. 1999. Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

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