Many of us who live in cities have been woken up early on a Saturday morning to the raucous calling of magpies outside our windows. As it turns out, our battle with magpies goes deeper than that. They are unpopular with gardeners because they feast on fruit trees and flowering bulbs, which can and ruin our landscaping. Magpies will eat the eggs of songbirds, or find a snack in a bird feeder, making them unpopular with bird lovers too. The magpie is a beautiful bird that is often under-appreciated for its intelligence, adaptability and survival skills.
The next time a magpie is squawking outside your window, consider that it could be a tribute to a fallen flock member. When a magpie dies, the first bird to find the body will begin loudly calling out to all other birds in the area. Up to 40 birds will then come and loudly pay their respects for 10 to 15 minutes before silently flying away. The loud calling is an important social ritual -- not just a substitute for an alarm clock.
Other times, magpies have to adapt to home intruders, particularly while they are raising their young. If you (or your pet) is blissfully unaware of a magpie nest, you may be squawked at by a magpie trying to protect its home. During springtime in particular, magpies who are raising their young are very protective parents, and are known to attack any creature who appears to pose a threat. With that said, you may be the intruder, and not the other way around. So, take a look up every once in awhile when outside in your yard, or in the neighbourhood. There may be a large nest made of twigs. A magpie nest is unique because it has a front entrance and a back entrance to accommodate for their long tails that are too long for them to turn around inside the nest.
The black billed magpie is the only type that lives in Canada. Originally, they learned to live with the vast herds of bison that roamed the prairies and foothills. They would eat dead bison, as well as the many ticks that live on the animal's’ back. For a long time, this was a great relationship. But in the late 1800’s, the number of bison were reduced from millions to less than 100. This resulted in a significant decrease in the magpie population.
Before the bison died off, some magpies had learned to follow indigenous peoples to feast on leftovers from their bison kills. These human leftovers proved to be the way of the future. Records indicate that the Lewis and Clark expedition, the first exploration of the Louisiana territory in 1803, suffered from magpies stealing food from their tents. This relationship has since evolved over the last 150 years to the magpies we have today, who feast on roadkill, garbage, and gardens around our cities and towns.
Magpies are making a comeback, and are learning to thrive alongside humans. While magpies can certainly be annoying, take some time to appreciate the adaptability and resilience these birds have shown over the years. If you take a moment to watch, you may learn more about what they are doing, and how they adapt their behaviour to live among us.