When I lived in Calgary, I saw black-billed magpies on a daily basis. Now that I live in Ontario, I miss these noisy, flashy birds. While I was home for Christmas I took the time to interview a female magpie.
Amelia: Hello, nice to see you again!
Magpie: The pleasure’s all mine, I’m sure.
A: How’s the winter so far? Any trouble finding food?
M: Please darling, I’m a scavenger. I always find food.
A: Yes, about that. Did you make holes in our garbage bags?
M: What do you expect when you throw out perfectly good food? We learned a long time ago that humans are great sources of food. For thousands of years we followed the aboriginal people who hunted the plains bison, and ate their leftovers. But then some Europeans decided “hey, let’s shoot all the bison.”
A: Yah, not one of Canada’s proudest moments.
M: Not good for the bison, and not good for us. Magpies and bison were pals. We would sit on their backs and eat all the bloodsucking ticks they couldn’t reach. It was a win-win relationship.
A: Wait, you eat ticks? I thought you just ate dead animals and garbage.
M: Sweetie, I’ll eat just about anything. Some call me a scavenger, but I prefer opportunist. If there’s something on the ground, I’ll eat it. Seeds and fruit? I’m there. Worms or other bugs? I’ll slurp that up. Rotting meat? You betcha. Hey, if scavengers like us didn’t clean things up, we’d be knee deep in rotting stuff. You may think we’re gross, but we do an important job.
A: I guess so. But I’ve heard you also eat eggs and baby birds. That’s mean!
M: Okay, so I occasionally snack on baby birds. But it’s a rarity. Why would I want to waste energy killing something when I could eat something that’s already dead? Domestic cats kill far more baby birds than we do, and you still cuddle with them.
A: You have a point there. I’ve also heard that farmers don’t like you. Why is that?
M: Geez, peck out the eyes of one calf, and you’re branded for life! Farms are awesome places for food. Sure, we’ve gobbled up some grain, maybe eaten a few young chickens. But we’re also pest control. We love to eat crop pests like grasshoppers. We also eat the ticks off the back of their cows. Unfortunately some ranchers spray their cows with pesticides to keep the ticks away. Pesticides do nasty things to us.
A: I’ve also heard that people don’t like you because you steal shiny things, like engagement rings. Is that true?
M: Not a word of it! All we want is your garbage. Earlier this year, ecologist Dr. Toni Shephard peeked in our nests and didn’t find anything shiny there. She also put shiny objects next to food, to see if we would run off with them. We only touched them twice in 64 trials. So no, we are not thieves.
A: I’m glad we cleared that up. How come I don’t see you in Ontario?
M: It’s not part of our range, darling. We prefer the plains and prairies. You can find us from the Yukon all the way to western Manitoba. We don’t migrate, that’s for weaklings.
A: If you don’t migrate, how do you survive the cold?
M: We gang up. In the winter we hang out in large groups and forage for food together. I’m a social butterfly, really. If you see one magpie, there are likely others close by. We like to roost in pine trees, which keeps us safe from the wind and predators.
A: What kind of predators do you look out for?
M: Lots of things, hawks, owls and coyotes. Crows, ravens, raccoons, and cats will also eat my eggs and babies. If I let them, that is.
A: How do you protect your chicks from all this murder and mayhem?
M: It’s all in the nest. I build a little mud cup to hold the eggs, and my mate surrounds it with a scaffolding of branches. This keeps out unwanted visitors. The whole construction is around 50cm tall and 70cm wide, and takes us five to seven weeks to build.
A: Wow, that’s quite an investment!
M: Yep. Most nests will last a good four years. Even so, we build a new nest every year.
A: Why not use the old one?
M: Because someone usually steals it! Usually squirrels and other birds. That’s the price of building a solid nest, I guess.
A: I have another question. Why do you harass my poor cat?
M: Because she’s a predator! Over time we’ve found that offence is the best defense. If I see a predator like a hawk or coyote, I’ll call my friends and they’ll help me drive it away.
A: I guess that makes sense. Life can be dangerous for a magpie.
M: You bet! I only expect to live about two years. Males do a bit better with 3.5.
A: Gosh. I’m sorry, I didn’t realize.
M: Don’t worry your head about it. When I die, a huge crowd of magpies will perch around me, and call loudly to each other before flying off silently.
A: Yes, I’ve heard about that. Scientists don’t know why you gather around dead magpies. Care to share?
M: Nope. Magpie secret.
A: Fair enough. Okay, one more question. Why is your tail so long? It’s longer than the rest of your body.
M: Well, because it looks divine! More importantly, we use it as a rudder to make quick twists and turns in the air. We can’t fly very fast, so quick maneuvers are the only we can avoid being caught by a hawk or owl.
A: Makes sense. Thanks for speaking with me.
M: Anytime, darling. Just keep leaving those garbage bags out.
Devlin, Hannah. Aug 16, 2014. Experiment takes the shine off thieving magpie myth. The United Kingdom Times, p 20.