Black-billed Magpie

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A. Elliott

A. Elliott

Common Name: Black-billed Magpie

Latin Name: Pica hudsonia

Size and identifying feature: 45-60cm in length. Easily identified by long tail feathers 😊

Sounds: Magpies have a variety of sounds including ones that sound like maaagh?! wenk-wenk-wenk

Habitat, Diet and Ecosystem Role

Range: Year-round resident from Alaska south into British Columbia and east to Manitoba along with much of the United States

Habitat: Natural habitat is open forests, grasslands and plains but magpies are frequent visitors to urban backyards

Diet: Insects, seed, fruit, carrion, small mammals and birds. Not overly picky about their diet and will also eat leftover food scraps from people and pets

Ecosystem Role: Magpies play a number of important roles in the urban ecosystem. Their most important role may be as scavengers who by eating leftover scraps prevent the spread of disease through the food chain, including to people. They also play a big role in pest control from insects to rodents.

Moose in Calgary with winter ticks being picked off by magpies.

Courtesy of Calgary Captured

D. Arndt

Courtesy of Calgary Captured 

Fun Facts

Magpies are members of the corvid family. Other members of the corvid family include crows, ravens, jays and nutcrackers. Many people know how smart crows and ravens are and like their cousins, magpies are super intelligent! Magpies have been shown to recognize faces like crows and also like crows have been known to bring gifts to those who are kind to them.

Like their corvid cousins, Magpies have been observed holding funerals for fallen friends. 

It has been said that Magpies hold significance for Blackfoot People. Magpies would help warn of coming danger and also help hunters find game. 

In the winter deer and moose in the city can suffer from infestations of winter ticks, that’s right there are ticks active in winter! In fact, these ticks can become so numerous on moose that they have become one of the leading causes of mortality for young moose. But there is good news when it comes to magpies! Magpies behave like birds on the savannah that follow animals around and pick bugs on them only they do it in the winter in Canada! Magpies will land on moose and pick the ticks off them while the moose go about their day. By doing this, they may help young moose make it through the winter!

While they help moose now, magpies historically would have done the same for bison on the grassland plains that used to cover Alberta. As bison declined, so too did magpies but they didn’t disappear! While the bison aren’t roaming the plains anymore, magpies have found their new home in the city becoming one of the most prolific and successful urban wildlife species!

Magpies make a large domed shaped nest of twigs.It has two entrances. This might make it easier to leave the nest because of its long tail as it does not need to turn around.

Magpies will often mob owls and hawks to chase them away. This can be useful for birders to know that there might be one nearby. In the urban yard, magpies are excellent warning systems for predators  including roaming cats. If you hear magpies making a fuss, check it out, you might see something new!

You may have heard about how ravens and crows will follow packs of wolves and let them know when potential prey or carrion they could scavenge is nearby. Well, something similar can be found on the prairies and in the city with coyotes and magpies. If you see magpies flying along somewhat close to the ground in our natural areas, look down, you might see a coyote trotting along beneath them!

How are Black-billed Magpies faring in Calgary?

Every May citizen scientists led by Nature Calgary perform a spring bird count. Not only do these counts help estimate the presence of birds now but over time these numbers can help identify trends in bird populations as the city continues to grow and change. The count covers an 80km radius from the center of the city as seen in the image below. To the right are population trend numbers for Black-billed Magpies between 1979 and 2021

The Christmas Bird Count is another way that citizen scientists are helping keep track of birds across the world. Every year people are invited to document birds both in their yards and while they are out over a specific 24 hour period in December. This past December, 2401 Magpies were recorded, an 8% decrease over the 10 year average.