The first black-billed magpie the Muse and I ever saw was in Nebraska. Somewhere in the rural outback, in a ranch home that may or may not have been occupied by humans; sometimes back then it was hard to tell for sure. There were a few magpies, however, and they were “first-evers” for two upstart birdwatchers from the East.
We studied the magpies for quite a little time. Back then we savored our animal sightings. We had several of those early field guides, the ones with actual text accompanying each entry. A magpie, for example, is a large black and white bird, almost 2 feet in length including its long tail, with a 2-foot wingspan. Usually noisy with a variety of calls, notes and conversations. Rather flashy and adroit in flight.
Magpies are in the corvid family, along with ravens, crows and jays, all considered among the smartest birds in the world. Magpies mate for life and remain together throughout the year. They are good parents and sociable with their kind. At times during a year, families of magpies interact and forage together.
A couple of weeks ago I watched a magpie seeking dead branches to strengthen its nest (it nests in a fir tree near my nest). The bird (sexes are alike to human eyes) silently moved through an old lilac bush, selecting, testing and either accepting or discarding dead branches. No casual matter.
I didn’t have the opportunity to see a branch put to use. A magpie’s nest is large, of necessity, has a dome-shaped cover and a side entrance. Well hidden by foliage when nestlings come on. Normally noisy, magpies are silent around their nests when young are inside.
Magpies are aware of the death of a magpie, or at least recognize a freshly dead magpie. Surviving magpies in a group or extended family have rather often been observed — and reported — to gather around the dead magpie, circling, probing, pushing and, well, mourning. Just last year, scrub jays — corvids in the same family with magpies — were found to have a similar ritual to that of black-billed magpies.
Magpies eat about everything. And they’ll try to eat about everything, dead or alive. A friend watched a magpie attempt to catch a ground squirrel the other day, trying a direct attack, and when that failed waylaying it. No luck, but next time you see a magpie notice its sturdy beak.
The same good friend and I had a recent opportunity to introduce a young person to magpies after she noticed a couple of them and then really looked at them. She even really saw the iridescent purplish and greenish feathers that magpies have but that are too seldom noticed (by people).
Corvids eat almost everything, from other birds’ eggs and young to insects, including ticks, and carrion. They notice and investigate everything. Ranchers have grievances against magpies, mistakenly sometimes.
Some people dislike magpies and other corvids, but their dislike is often misinformed. Not so many decades ago there was a bounty on magpies in parts of Wyoming. Ravens and crows are subject today to mass “reductions” for one cause or another. Such methods are at best temporary mitigation and ultimately seem to be management failures.
Field Notes: Bears are out and moving. Elk are leaving for up-country. More are searching for prime forage. Marmots are out, as are ground squirrels and chipmunks.
Spotted frogs have begun to lay their eggs — see if you can work that into some conversation with your peers, if you have any peers.
Bluebirds and tree swallows are back in the Hole. So are most of our waterfowl, meadowlarks and sandhill cranes. Long-billed curlews and kestrels. Ruffed grouse and evening grosbeaks. Snow bunting and black-headed grosbeaks. What’s that nest bird?
Only a scattering of rosy finches. Handsful, especially when compared with hundreds the valley usually sees in winter and spring. All in all an exciting time for nature watchers and mappers. Do keep an eye out and report your observations to Nature Mapping Jackson Hole and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.