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Magpies—You Might Not Know What You're Missing

January 14, 2011 | by Diane Tipton
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The black-billed magpie, a flashy song bird in the corvid family, is under rated by the public but fascinating to those who study birds.

It is the magpie’s easily observed scavenging skills that helped tarnish its image in the first place. Now studies around the globe are revealing that this sleek, distinctively marked black and white bird is so much more than previously known. The magpie possesses an impressive package of skills, intelligence and genetics shared to one degree or another by other members of the corvid family that includes ravens, crows, and jays.

Here is a closer look at the black-beaked magpie.

These birds are not simply skilled, instinctual survivors, they are extremely intelligent. How intelligent? Studies show they can use tools, recognize themselves in a mirror and exhibit “theory of mind.” Theory of mind means that individual birds in studies have demonstrated that if they themselves steal food they are able to conceive of other magpies doing the same and then take precautions to protect their caches from theft.

Magpies are very vocal. They often make a variety of chatter-like calls. But, if you take time to listen regularly to magpies you might be surprised at what you hear. They frequently mimic bells, horns, engines, other birds’ calls and even human words. They are also heard carrying on well punctuated “conversations” with cadence and even exclamations.

A 2007 study of vocal mimicry in birds in Europe could find no evidence mimicry evolved for an essential purpose. While we have a lot to learn about magpies, it is possible that they, and other birds with this skill, mimic sounds because they may like the sound, or the attention their mimicry attracts.

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Beneath the magpie’s sleek exterior lies DNA that appears to stretch back to an identifiable lineage of dinosaurs.

That’s right. Amazing as it sounds, a majority of experts in paleontology say that today’s birds, including the magpie, are genetically related to certain dinosaurs.

A recent story in Smithsonian Magazine describes how a fossilized dinosaur skeleton found in Montana in the 1960’s undermined the assumption that birds and dinosaurs didn’t have much in common. Deinonychus stood about 11 feet from head to tail and had characteristics found in today’s birds.

Paleontologists and other scientists began looking for additional anatomical links between birds and dinosaurs--the most obvious gap was evidence that dinosaurs had feathers.  That evidence from 125 million years ago was found in a volcanic area in Liaoning province in China. It enabled experts to confirm that there indeed was a dinosaur species, Maniraptorans, with feathers and other signature characteristics in common with today’s birds.

Based on these and other studies, it is no stretch to say that magpies and other modern birds are living representatives of the Maniraptoran lineage of dinosaur.

So, if you feel a need to renew your sense of wonder in 2011, getting to know your local magpies may be a good place to start.

Or, check the 2010 Montana income tax form next to the flying eagle to contribute to Montana's Nongame Wildlife Program managed by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. Your contribution helps fund nongame wildlife management and activities that encourage public awareness of these wildlife species, including birds.

Fun Facts about Magpies

  • Black-billed magpies frequently followed bison-hunting Native Americans and lived on the refuse of their hunts.
  • The magpie makes a very large nest that takes up to 40 days to construct.
  • Like most members of its family the magpie is a predator on nests of other birds.
  • The magpie frequently lands on large mammals, such as deer and moose, to remove ticks from them.
  • Black-billed magpies will flip over cow manure looking for insects.
  • Magpies will steal food from predators, and hoard food when there is excess for up to one or two days.