North Words: The black-billed magpies of NW Minnesota

I'm observing a lot more black-billed magpies than I have in the past; and in areas that I never formerly observed them. In fact, every morning on my way to work from my Hubbard County home southwest of Bemidji, I see dozens of magpies along the ...

I’m observing a lot more black-billed magpies than I have in the past; and in areas that I never formerly observed them. In fact, every morning on my way to work from my Hubbard County home southwest of Bemidji, I see dozens of magpies along the roadway. Their long greenish tails and bold black and white color pattern are a delight to view.

Observing the interesting birds reminds me of a time in the early 2000s when I was asked to help guide birders on a bus tour to a few of northwestern Minnesota’s birding hotspots. The tour I helped lead included three premier birding destinations: Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge, Old Mill State Park, and the Wetlands, Pines and Prairie Audubon Sanctuary (now called the Audubon Center of the Red River Valley).

The tour began from Lake Bronson State Park and about thirty of us boarded a noisy school bus on a promising and beautiful May morning for a day of birding adventures. I took my seat next to a gentleman from southern Minnesota - I on the aisle seat, he next to the window. Expensive looking binoculars that hung by its straps around his neck matched wonderfully with his multi-pocketed birding vest, wide-brimmed safari style hat, cargo pants, and hiking boots. 

I noted that sticking out of a few of his vest pockets were what appeared to be a date-planner book, in addition to a well-used field guidebook of birds, a species checklist, several pens and pencils, and a bottle each of sunscreen and insect repellent. As well, he had with him a fanny pack stuffed with essentials - what, I didn’t know - and a smallish backpack that I presumed contained his lunch, water, and other important birding stuff. This gentlemen, I thought, was a serious birder.

I learned later that his “planner book” was actually a logbook listing all the birds this fellow had observed over the many years he’s traveled in search of birds. Not only did his logbook reveal what species were observed, but also what the species’ sexes were, whether they were adult or juvenile, their exact geographic locations, existing weather conditions, dates, years, and more. Like I said, this man was serious about his birding.


As we rode across the open country of the aspen parklands conversing amicably to one another, I noticed through his window a small group of the area’s more common species of birds flying fairly close to the roadway’s ditch over a grassy field. I nonchalantly pointed at the long-tailed birds, commenting barely above a whisper, “Magpies”.

My new friend nearly jumped out of his boots at the site of those magpies, and, before I knew it, the entire busload of birders were up on their feet in a rush to our side of the bus to have a look for themselves. Everyone had binoculars to their eyes and everyone was breathlessly exclaiming “Magpies!”

It hadn’t occurred to me - and I felt foolish at the sudden realization of it - that these folks, all of whom had never visited Minnesota’s far northwest, might not have ever seen a magpie before. Silly me; I should’ve known! Not only does the black-billed magpie not occur throughout the entire state, they are indeed one of our most unique Minnesota birds.

Few birds are as conspicuous. It’s bold black and white plumage and long metallic green tail - which often appears black - makes it instantly recognizable. Belonging to the avian family Corvidae, black-billed magpies are related to jays, crows and ravens. Like their cousins, magpies are intelligent birds that, if domesticated, can be trained to imitate the human voice. Like crows, they are opportunists when it comes to food. They eat a wide variety of foods including carrion and non-food items.

In fact, the black-billed magpie’s scientific name, Pica pica, is so-named because of its feeding behaviors. The magpie often purposely ingests pica, which means a craving for non-food items such as dirt and clay, and it is thought they do so to help with gastrointestinal problems resulting from microorganisms in the gut. Furthermore, the word magpie also means “one who collects indiscriminately.” And magpies do indeed collect and ingest objects - both food and non-food items.

The magpie is a vocal bird that emits a nasal sounding “mag-mag-mag?” or “yak-yak-yak”. One often hears a magpie before actually observing one. Aside from their distinctive vocalizations, I am always struck by the graceful flight of the magpie. Its long and flowing tail give this bird the appearance of nearly effortless flight. They seem to float through the air in butterfly-like fashion.

Magpies are frequently associated with carrion. These birds, along with crows and ravens, are usually the first to arrive at a carcass. In fact, in areas where coyotes and wolves inhabit, it has been observed that these mammals will follow flocks of corvids - such as crows, ravens and magpies - apparently knowing that the birds could potentially lead them to food. 

Here in northwestern Minnesota we should be grateful for birds like the black-billed magpie. As my birder friends inside that old school bus helped demonstrate to me that day, magpies help make our home a very unique place to live. Despite the birds’ namesake as arbitrary collectors, black-billed magpies are delightful birds to observe. And, as many people are discovering, their distribution has greatly expanded.


Indeed, these avian year-round residents are more common throughout the Northland than we think as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

(Klemek is a DNR Wildlife Manager. You can contact him at .)

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