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Magpies are smart and striking, and they hold 'funerals'

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A black-billed magpie in flight at Badlands National Park. Photo by Lee McDowell, NPS
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Those of you who are regular readers of my “wildlife weeklies” over the years (and thank you, by the way), have no doubt picked up on the fact that I hold a certain affinity toward birds belonging to the crow family, otherwise known as the avian family Corvidae or, simply, corvids.

The group is comprised of crows, ravens, jays, nutcrackers, and magpies, and here in Minnesota we enjoy five species of the total 20 species that occur throughout North America. Minnesota corvids include the American crow, common raven, black-billed magpie, gray jay, and blue jay.

Corvids are highly intelligent birds. Most species are common and widespread, and all are adaptable and social birds. Some are skittish in behavior, such as the blue jay. Others, like the gray jay, are friendly and docile birds. And some, like the black-billed magpie and the subject of this week’s column, are striking looking birds that radiate an almost exotic aura.

Black-billed magpies are interesting and beautiful birds. They prefer open landscape habitats and are especially fond of agricultural areas and pastures.

Where magpies occur here in the northland, expect to observe them more frequently in northwestern and western Minnesota, up and down the Red River valley, as well as throughout the transition zone where pine meets prairie -- and in scattered pockets of open land in forested regions of northwestern Minnesota, including the Bemidji area.


Indeed, on my way to work each morning as I drive through patches of farm and pastureland southwest of Bemidji, I frequently observe magpies sitting on top of round hay bales, magpies scrounging for scraps on roadways, and sometimes magpies in ditches feeding on and sharing deer carcasses with crows, ravens, turkey vultures, and eagles.

While two species of magpies exist in North America, only one, the black-billed magpie, inhabit Minnesota. The other species, yellow-billed magpie, occur only in California. Both species are remarkably similar in appearance, though the black-billed magpie is slightly larger and has a longer tail. And of course as their names suggest, the color of each species’ bills are different.

If you’re like me, the origins of common and Latin names are noteworthy, and thus the source of “magpie” is no less interesting. While different accounts exist, there’s universal agreement that the term “mag” is derived, in essence, for the quality of a magpie’s chattering vocalizations. Think of the species’ oft delivered, nasally sounding, “mag, mag, mag” the next time you listen a magpie vocalizing.

The second part of its name, “pie,” is derived from French, which also comes from the Latin word “pica,” which means black-and-white, multi-colored, or pied. One now knows the origin of the term “piebald” when describing, for example, a deer that sometimes exhibits the unusual white-spotted pelage abnormality.

Behaviorally, black-billed magpies are among the more appealing corvids. They build the most unique nests of the entire corvid clan, which are large, sort of ball-shaped masses of sticks that are actually domed and have side entrances.

nother unusual behavior, the so-called “funeral” behavior, is when one magpie discovers the body of a dead magpie. Calling loudly, the discovering magpie quickly attracts the attention of dozens of other nearby magpies. Gathered around the deceased bird, the group of magpies vocalize together for up to 15 minutes before the entire mob leaves the dead magpie and all fly silently away as if in a solemn procession.

Undoubtedly influenced by a tame magpie I once had the pleasure of knowing, that went by the name Maggie, I became forever fascinated by the beauty, intelligence, and elegant flight of this endearing bird.

Hand raised by a friend and neighbor of mine, Maggie was often visiting me at my house because she loved venison burger, which I always had on hand for her to eat. I’d call her name and she’d fly to my shoulder, where I would feed her bits of burger.


The black-billed magpie, a corvid of uncommon beauty and grace, is among the most interesting of Minnesota’s many avian wonders, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

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