Posts Tagged ‘Black-billed Magpie’

A Feast for Magpies

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Monday, December 10th, 2012
Black-billed Magpie

Black-billed Magpie © Lisa Densmore

A Feast for Magpies by Lisa Densmore

Location: Red Lodge, Montana

As I waited for 17 to show up at my house and dig into this year’s Thanksgiving feast, I couldn’t help but notice four Black-billed Magpies in my yard. They busily poked their beaks into the bony carcass of a white-tailed deer that had spilled out of a large trash can, the top of which had just blown off in a fierce wind. The wind also collapsed the tall fence that shielded the trash can from the rest of the world, downed trees and sent anything that wasn’t tied securely into the next county. Most of the deer was already in my freezer, but the opportunistic magpies avidly foraged a venison feast from the few scraps that remained.

My first reaction was to shoo away these carrion-eating corvids, but I paused, enjoying the chance to watch them swagger around their prize. Larger than a blue jay but smaller than a raven, they are rather attractive with their long iridescent blue tails and wing feathers and their flashy white sides.

The largest magpie stood at the high point on the carcass, flashing its eyes and ruffling its feathers if the others tried to get near his spot. Black-billed Magpies may be social birds but they still stake out their turf.

These western scavengers aren’t afraid of people either and consider us a good source of food. Early records of the American West mention magpies following hunting parties to feed on bison kills or to steel food out of tents. Magpies nab eggs and baby birds from other birds’ nests giving them a low-brow reputation, but they also serve an important purpose in an ecosystem, cleaning up after larger predators. And they perform a valuable service to wild ungulates, such as deer and moose, and to domestic cows eating ticks off their backs.

Magpies cache food when it’s abundant though the ones in my backyard didn’t have leftovers from their Thanksgiving feast. After a few minutes, I shooed them away and cleaned up the wreckage from the wind. On the other hand, I have enough turkey and stuffing left over to feed my family for the next week.

The Cunning Corvidae

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Thursday, March 15th, 2012

Common Raven by Jack Ballard

The exodus of migratory species substantially reduces the number of birds available for observation during the winter months here in the northern Rocky Mountains. However, while some species are absent during the snowy season, others are actually more visible. Such is my experience with members of the corvid clan such as Common Ravens, Gray Jays and Black-billed Magpies.

Among birds, the corvids are the whiz-kids. Last fall, I tacked a piece of suet from an Elk I was butchering to an aspen tree, hoping to attract some fat-loving birds such as Northern Flickers or Downy Woodpeckers. Within an hour the morsel attracted the attention of a Black-billed Magpie with exceptionally long tail feathers. Five months later a single Magpie appearing to be the same individual occasionally visits the tree. At times it peers in my window, seemingly begging for another morsel.

Black-billed Magpie by Jack Ballard

Far from unusual, this Magpie’s memory of a fleeting, but highly desirable food source is in keeping with its kind. Members of the corvidae family have demonstrated memory of cached food items a full nine months after hiding them. In tests of spatial intelligence, the ability of corvids exceeds most mammals, including dogs and cats. In fact, the problem-solving abilities of corvids are thought by many biologists to be on par with apes.

Just for fun, this morning I put a small scrap of stew meat in a crotch in the aspen tree. How long do you think it will take Mensa Magpie to find it?