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Clever and eye-catching, magpies like to collect stuff

A black billed magpie soaks up some sun on a cold morning as hoarfrost clings to the cottonwoods in Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming. Flickr photo by Tom Koerner/USFWS1 / 2
Outdoors Columnist Blane Klemek2 / 2

My commute to work from my home near Becida to the north end of Lake Bemidji takes me about 40 minutes one way. Traveling on the "Mississippi Great River Road," the route is never short of scenery and wildlife.

On my return trip home one early evening recently, I was surprised by the sight of at least 50, possibly more, black-billed magpies flocked together on a freshly mowed hayfield a couple miles north of Becida.

Their presence alone wasn't necessarily a surprise, but seeing that many in one location was. Indeed, over the years more and more of these special birds have established themselves as year-around residents here in the northland's forested region.

I would argue that black-billed magpies are one of the most interesting birds that inhabit our region. The handsome and long-tailed species of wild bird that we usually refer to as simply "magpie" is conspicuous, colorful, and very intelligent.

The other North American species of magpie, the yellow-billed magpie, live in California. But here in Minnesota we have only one species: the black-billed magpie.

Few birds are as eye-catching. Its bold black and white plumage and long metallic green tail, which often appears black, makes it instantly recognizable.

Belonging to the avian family Corvidae and related to jays, crows and ravens, the magpie shares many of the behaviors of its cousins. They're smart birds and, if domesticated, can be trained to imitate the human voice. As well, like other members of its family, they are opportunists when it comes to food. Magpies eat a wide variety of foods including carrion and, interestingly, non-food items.

In fact, the black-billed magpie's scientific name, Pica pica, comes from its feeding behaviors. Pica, which means a craving for non-food items such as dirt and clay, are often purposely ingested by the magpie 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.

Regardless of its namesake, the black-billed magpie is an enjoyable bird to observe. A year-round resident, magpies are common here at the sanctuary. Many of them nest here. Their nests are elaborate and are constructed of sticks by both sexes of a mated pair.

The sticks, often thorny, are used for the bottom and the walls of the nest. Fresh manure and mud, along with vegetation, is packed inside and is then lined with softer materials such as roots, stems and hair. Lastly, the nest is usually domed with more sticks.

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'm always delighted 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 like a glider.

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

Occurring throughout the world and represented by four genera and about seventeen species, we should be thankful for having at least one of these fascinating species of birds — the black-billed magpie — here in northern Minnesota, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.