Wild Profile: Meet the black-billed magpie

Published: December 29, 2020 · Updated: December 30, 2020

A black-billed magpie perched on a branch By Eivor Kuchta/Shutterstock

If the black-billed magpie loves one thing above all else, it’s the cold weather. Or, at least, the middle of winter certainly puts magpies in the mood. That’s when the bold, flashy birds couple up and start planning for their futures, building nests together. The pairs weave spheres up to 75 cm high out of sticks. Each hollow ball has a side entrance that leads to a cozy, grass-and-mud-filled cup to house the eggs that Ma Magpie will lay in March.

When they’re not prepping for impending babyness, magpies are roosting together in bunches of up to 200 birds, mostly in the prairie provinces or the B.C. interior. When foraging—for berries, seeds, or live prey, such as chickadees—they form in small bands. During the cold season, the birds profit from the winter ticks feeding on cattle, moose, and deer. This is why you’ll see black-billed magpies perched on the backs of lots of hooved mammals. Bird gets dinner, deer gets a helpful parasite removal session. A win for both!

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All that said, carcasses make up most of a magpie’s diet in the winter. The birds are smart enough to know to follow predators—coyotes or hawks, for example—and scavenge from their kills. They’ll stash bits of, uh, flesh, in hiding spots for later. Thanks to a good memory, and a powerful sense of smell, retrieving their foodstuffs is easy.

Into birding? Black-billed magpies are easy enough to ID, with a distinct black-and-white colour pattern, white “backpack straps” on their shoulders, and iridescent splashes of green or blue on the wings and tails (this is especially common in younger males). But a magpie’s most obvious feature might be its extra-long, diamond-shaped tail. Magpies use their tails as rudders to navigate sharp turns while flying, in part making up for their short, stubby wings.

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